New Atheists and the existence of Jesus

 

Some new atheist writers claim that Jesus did not exist.

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Richard Dawkins writes, “It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam Books, London, 2006, p 97)

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Christopher Hitchens writes about “the highly questionably existence of Jesus” and “there was little or no evidence for the life of Jesus”. (Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great, Allen and Unwin, New South Wales, 2008, p 135, 152)

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MIchael Onfray writes, “Jesus’s existence has not been historically established” and “The ultra-rationalists – from Prosper Alfaric to Raoul Vaneigem – were probably right to deny the historical existence of Jesus.” (Michael Onfray, The Atheist Manifesto, Melbourne University Press, Victoria, 2007, p 115,117)

Okay, I have no idea who Prosper Alfraic and Raoul Vaneigem were, but name-dropping cannot cover up how weak the new atheists’ arguments against the historical existence of Jesus are.

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Bart Ehrman, who describes himself as an “agnostic with atheist leanings” (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Harper One, New York, 2012, p 2) is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and has written several books critical of conservative interpretations of the New Testament. We can expect him to be neutral and objective. He writes,

“I should say at the outset that none of this literature [denying the existence of Jesus] is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world.) Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed.” (Did Jesus Exist, p 2)

The only academic, which Richard Dawkins cites for Jesus’ non-existence is “Professor G. A. Wells of the University of London.”(The God Delusion, p 97) However, he does not tell his readers that Wells is a Professor of German.

If I have a question about ancient history, a Professor of German is always the first person I would ask.

The fact ,that Dawkins and the other new atheists cannot find a single academic in a history department anywhere in the world who will agree with them, should give us an idea how credible their ideas are. I could find more scientists with Ph.D.s from accredited universities who believe the world was created in six days than the new atheists can find historians who agree with them.

The new atheists seem to “think” that because they do not believe God exists, Jesus also did not exist. This does not make sense. I am not a Muslim or a Buddhist, but I still believe that Muhammad and Buddha existed. I am not aware of any new atheist who challenges their existence, only Jesus.

Not every historian, who believes there was a Jesus of Nazareth who founded Christianity, believes in God or that Jesus was the Son of God who died for their sins and rose from the dead. For over 200 years historians and theologians have been engaged in a quest or search for the “historical Jesus”, trying to determine whether Jesus really said and did the things attributed to him in the Gospels.

If some historians do not believe in the supernatural and do not believe the supernatural events attributed to Jesus happened, they do not conclude that Jesus did not exist, like the new atheists do. They are more likely to assume they were made up by the early church.

I have argued here that the Gospel accounts are historically reliable.

There is early historical evidence for Jesus other than Christian sources, however Michael Onfray says that “we know that most existing documents are skillfully executed forgeries.” (The Atheist Manifesto, p 116)

Onfray may “know” this, but no one who works in an ancient history department in a university does.

Nevertheless, he continues,

“Nothing of what remains can be trusted. The Christian archives are the result of ideological fabrication. Even the writings of Flavius Josephus, Suetonius or Tacitus, who mention in a few hundred verses the existence of Christ and his faithful in the first century of our era, obey the rules of intellectual forgery. When an anonymous monk recopied the Antiquities of the Jewish historian Josephus (arrested and turned into a double agent, a collaborator with Roman power) when that monk had before him the Annals of Tacitus or Suetonius’s Lives of Twelve Caesars (and was astonished to find no mention of the story he believed in), he added a passage in his own hand and in all good faith, without shame and without a second thought, without wondering whether he was doing wrong or committing forgery.” (The Atheist Manifesto, p 117)

Onfray’s account of an “astonished” monk finding no mention of Christ in Jospehus, Tacitus and Suetonius and adding them “without shame or a second thought” exists only in his imagination. It seems that because he does not believe Jesus was a historical figure, then any historical reference to Jesus must be fake.

The only partial truth to his claim is a passage from Josephus which reads,

“Now, there was about this time Jesus,a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:5:2)

Because Jospehus was a Jew, he was not likely to have said Jesus was the Christ, however the majority of historians do not believe this passage is a complete forgery. They believe there was an authentic reference to Jesus by Josephus, but it was altered and made more Christian by a later Christian monk (John Dickson, Investigating Jesus, An Historian’s Quest, Lion Hudson, London, 2010, p 74).

There is an Arabic version of this passage which is not so explicitly Christian and it may be the original,

“At this time there was a wise man named Jesus. His conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to crucifixion and death; but those who had become his disciples did not forsake his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; he was therefore, perhaps, the Messiah concerning whom the prophets had recounted wonderful things.”

Jospehus mentions Jesus in another passage referring to the execution of his brother James,

“He [Ananus the high priest] assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” (Jospehus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:9:1)

Tacitus mentioned Christ when he described Nero’s persecution of the Christians,

“To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called.) Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. But, in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition broke out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.” (Tacitus, Annals, 15;44)

This passage is critical of Christians and I do not know of any historian who thinks it is a Christian forgery.

Suetonius briefly mentions Nero’s persecution of the Christians,

“Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.” (Suetonius, Lives, Nero, 16)

Suetonius also wrote about Claudius.

“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.” (Suetonius, Lives, Claudius, 25)

Some historians think “Chrestus’ is a garbled reference to Christ and it refers to clashes between Jews and Christians in Rome, but it is not conclusive. However, Onfray claims even this passage is a forgery. Surely, if a later Christian copyist were to forge a reference to Jesus, he would make it clearer and spell “Christ” correctly.

There is only one other group I know of which behaves like this towards historical evidence – Holocaust deniers or revisionists who claim the evidence for the Nazi gas chambers is forged, unreliable or misinterpreted. Both new atheists and Holocaust revisionists are motivated by their ideological bias and refuse to accept the evidence.

Onfray further tries to cast doubt on Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius when he writes they are “manuscripts copied several centuries after they were written. (The Atheist Manifesto, p 117)

Our earliest manuscript of Suetonius was copied 800 years after it was written. Our earliest manuscript of Tacitus was copied 1000 years after it was written. However, Tacitus and Suetonius are our main sources for the Roman Empire in the first century. If we were to reject them because of the time between the originals and our earliest copies, we would know very little about that period. Modern historians do not have a problem with Tacitus and Suetonius, only the new atheists.

In contrast, our earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament is from John and is dated to about 30 to 40 years after it was written and our first complete manuscripts are from about 300 years after it was written, but we will not hear any new atheists saying how the text of the New Testament is so much more reliable than Tacitus and Suetonius.

The Gospels, the rest of the New Testament and other early Christian writings also contain evidence for the existence of Jesus. When these are taken into account, there is more historical evidence for Jesus than any other person in the ancient world.

In The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus Gary Habermas and Michael Licona estimate that Jesus or Christ was mentioned by 42 Christian and non-Christian writers within 150 years of the crucifixion, while Tiberius, Roman emperor at the time, was only mentioned by nine writers, including the New Testament’s Luke, within 150 years of his death. (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Kregel, Michigan, 2004, 127-128)

However, Christopher Hitchens writes,

“Well, it can be stated with certainty, and on their own evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly not literal truth. This means that many of the “sayings” and teachings of Jesus are hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay, which helps explain their garbled and contradictory nature.” (God is not Great, p 142)

Richard Dawkins says about the Gospels,

“Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard The New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened…… The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.” (The God Delusion, p 97)

I am not sure what Dawkins thinks a “reputable biblical scholar” is, presumably one who agrees with him.

In the last 30 years the “quest for the historical Jesus”, the attempt to work out how historically reliable the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus is, has come to see the Gospels as more accurate than previous generations of scholars. The majority of New Testament historians do not agree with Dawkins’ rhetoric.

The consensus among historians is that the New Testament Gospels are similar to other ancient biographies and were intended to be biographies of Jesus, describing what they believed happened. This consensus is largely a result of Richard Burridge’s What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2004.

To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, it can be stated with certainty, and in their evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly literal truth. They are biographies of Jesus and intended to describe what the authors believed actually happened. That is the consensus of New Testament scholarship, as opposed to the dogmatic opinions of the new atheists.

Hitchens’ claim that the Gospels are “hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay” is hardly accurate. Matthew and John were traditionally believed to have been written by eyewitnesses. According to Papias, who wrote around 130 AD, Mark wrote what the eyewitness Peter told him (Eusebius, The History of the Church, 3:39, Penguin Classics, London, 1989, p 103-104).

Most New Testament scholars believe Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. Paul died in the mid 60s and because Luke’s sequel Acts ends with Paul still alive in Rome, it was presumably written before he died, Luke must have been written before then.

Admittedly, many scholars believe Luke and Acts were written later, some as late as the 90s, but this is largely because Luke contains Jesus’ prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem in 70, and they do not believe prophecy is possible. But if an account of someone’s life ends with them still alive, it is safe bet it was written before they died, not 25 years later.

Both Dawkins and Hitchens claim the Gospels contain errors and contradictions which are supposed to mean they are not true. Hitchens claim the Gospels “cannot agree on anything of importance.” (God is not Great, p 132). Is he serious? What about Jesus coming from Nazareth, being the Son of God and Messiah, travelling and preaching, having disciples, performing miracles, offending the Jewish leaders, being arrested, tried and crucified and rising from the dead?

Hitchens also claims. “The contradictions and illiteracies [?] of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars, and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” ” (God is not Great, p 136)

I am not sure how the “Christ of faith”, which usually means the alleged difference between what Christians believe about Christ and the historical Jesus of Nazareth, can explain any supposed contradictions in the Gospels.

Likewise, Dawkins claims, “The resulting contradictions are glaringly, but consistently overlooked by the faithful” and asks “Why don’t they notice these glaring contradictions?” (The God Delusion, p 94)

The truth is there are numerous Christian books devoted to explaining the supposed contradictions in the Bible, e.g.,

Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of BIble Difficulties, Zondervan, MIchigan, 1982

Norman Geisler, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties, Baker Books, Michigan, 2008

John Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, Whitaker House, Pennsylvania, 2004

Ken Ham, Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions, Master Boooks, Arizona, 2010

Walter Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, IVP, Engalnd, 1996

Sometimes these “contradictions” are just different ways of saying the same thing and both can be true. On the subject of the women who visited Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning, Matthew says Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went (Matthew 28:1), Mark says Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Salome went (Mark 16:1), Luke says Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women went (Luke 24:10), John says Mary Magdalene went and she tells the disciples “we don’t know where they have laid Him” (John 20:1,2), suggesting there were more.

These accounts are different, but they can all be true. They only mean the authors only mentioned some of those who went. They also mean that the Gospel writers were not copying each other and we have multiple attestations to the resurrection.

Even if the new atheists could prove there is an unexplainable contradiction in the Gospels, that would not prove the events in the Gospels did not happen and Jesus did not exist. It would only challenge Christian ideas about inspiration and inerrancy.

Historians and others, who deal with eyewitnesses, like the police, lawyers and journalists, know that eyewitnesses can get it wrong, but that does not mean the events they described did not happen. They just made a mistake.

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In Gospel Truth, Answering New Atheist Attacks on the Gospels, Paul Barnett gives the example of the siege of Jerusalem in 66-70 AD. Tacitus says there were 6000 Romans. Jospehus says there were 600,000 (Paul Barnett, Gospel Truth, Answering New Atheist Attacks on the Gospels, IVP, England, 2012, p 93). This contradiction does not prove the Roman siege of Jerusalem never happened.

Real historians do not conclude that an event did not happen or a whole book is not true because of a mistake in the details. Again, the only other group, I know of which behave like this, are Holocaust deniers who look for mistakes and contradictions in the eyewitnesses’ accounts of the gas chambers and the extermination of the Jews and use these mistakes to argue that the eyewitnesses are wrong and the Holocaust did not happen.

Paul Barnett also makes an interesting point in that although Matthew and Luke are believed to have used Mark and sometimes said things differently than Mark, they did not accuse him of getting it wrong, while in the cases of other ancient historians contradicting each other, they often claimed they were right and the others were wrong (Gospel Truth, p 84-85). This suggests that although Matthew and Luke may have said things differently, they did not think Mark was wrong. It is possible for two or more people to describe the same event differently and all be true.

Some of the mistakes and contradictions which the new atheists raise are nothing of the sort.

Dawkins, citing Tom Flynn, argues that Luke made up the “worship by kings” at Jesus’ birth because of “Luke’s desire to adopt Christianity for the Gentiles.” (The God Delusion, p 94) While it is true that Luke appears to have been writing for a Gentile audience, the visit of the magi (wise men or astrologers, not kings) only occurs in Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels.

Hitchens claims that “all four Gospels were based on a lost book known as Q by scholars.” (God is not Great, p 133)

Q is a hypothetical source which many scholars believe was used by Matthew and Luke who also relied on Mark. No one (apart from Hitchens) thinks Mark and John used Q. Personally, I believe Q was an oral tradition of Jesus’ sayings, rather than a written source. Many modern scholars seem to assume that because they rely on written sources, so did the Gospel writers.

Onfray claims the Gospels were wrong to call Pontius Pilate a procurator,

“That same Pilate could not have been a procurator as the Gospels call him, for the title of procurator was first used around the year 50 of our era. Pilate’s title was prefect of Judaea.” (The Atheist Manifesto, p 128)

The only problem is Pilate is not called “procurator” in the Gospels, but by the more generic term “governor” or “hegemon”.

Onfray also claims that Jesus could not have been crucified because “History again bears witness: at that time Jews were not crucified but stoned to death.” ( The Atheist Manifesto, p 128)

I looked up “crucifixion” in the index of my Penguin Classics edition of Josephus’ The Jewish War and found eleven references to Jews being crucified. If Onfray has not consulted Josephus, what “history” does he think “bears witness” that Jews were not crucified?

If these are the sort of arguments which atheists out forward for the non-existence of Jesus, are their arguments for the non-existence of God any better?

 

There is no such thing as a Gnostic Gospel

In 1945 an Arab peasant discovered a collection of papyrus books in a jar buried near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. They included the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and other “Gospels” which are not found in the New Testament. These manuscripts had been written in Coptic (Egyptian) during the fourth century AD, and were translations of earlier Greek texts. Their authors were part of a religious movement known as Gnosticism.

Historians cannot agree on the origins of Gnosticism. It was a combination of Christian, Jewish and pagan beliefs. Gnostics did not believe Jesus was the Son of Jehovah, the Creator God of the Old Testament. They believed the true God was hidden and unknowable, while Jehovah was an evil false god who created the world by accident, trapping  human souls in it. They did not believe Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament who died to save us from our sins and rose physically from the dead. Gnostics did not believe our problem was sin, but ignorance, and Jesus was a spiritual being (some Gnostics did not even believe Jesus had a physical body), who came to reveal the insight or knowledge (gnosis in Greek) about how souls were trapped and needed to escape from this mistake of a world.

The complete Nag Hammadi writings were first published in English by Professor James M. Robinson in 1977. Elaine Pagels, who is now a Professor at Princeton University, introduced them to the general public when her book The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979. In 2003 The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown claimed the Gnostic Gospels, rather than the New Testament, contained the truth about Jesus. Then, in 2006, National Geographic published another Gnostic work, the Gospel of Judas, which had been found at Amber in Egypt around 1978.

When lay people hear that there are Gospels of Thomas, Philip, Judas and others, they may get the impression that they were written by Thomas, Judas and Paul, in the same way that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are believed to have been the authors of their Gospels. They may assume that the Gnostic Gospels contain historically reliable information about Jesus and the New Testament does not give the complete picture of Jesus.

This impression is encouraged by some of Gnosticism’s modern supporters. For example, the back cover of the DVD of the National Geographic documentary The Gospel of Judas reads,

“Hidden for nearly two thousand years, an ancient Gospel emerges from the sands of Egypt that tells a very different version of the last days of Jesus and questions the portrait of Judas Iscariot as the evil apostle.”

In his book, The Lost Gospel, Herbert Krosney refers to the Gospel of Judas as the “words of Judas” (Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel, National Geographic, Washington DC, 2006, p 165). He also writes,

“The Gospel of Judas provided a fresh witness to one of history’s defining events, leading up to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was as close to a contemporary account of what had happened as many other accounts of Jesus. It was supposedly the gospel, or good news, of one of the chief actors in the epic account of the last days of Jesus.” (The Lost Gospel, p 48)

They make it sound like the Gospel of Judas is on a par with the New Testament Gospels. In other words, between betraying Jesus and hanging himself, Judas found the time to write a Gospel full of Gnostic ideas which probably did not exist at the time.

Students of Christian history used to believe that the orthodox Christians were the original Christians and the Gnostics were heretics who later deviated from the truth. However, the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels supposedly shows that early Christianity was more diverse. In The Gnostic Gospels Elaine Pagels writes,

“According to Christian legend, the early church was different. Christians of every persuasion look back to the primitive church to find a simpler, purer form of Christian faith. In the apostles’ time all members of the Christian community shared their money and property, all believed the same teaching, all revered the authority of the apostles. It was only after that golden age that conflict, then heresy emerged: so says the author of the Acts of the Apostles, who identifies himself as the first historian of Christianity.

But the discoveries at Nag Hammadi have upset this picture. If we admit that some of these fifty-two texts represent early forms of Christian teaching, we may have to recognize that early Christianity is far more diverse than anyone expected before the Nag Hammadi discoveries.” (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Books, London, 1990, p  20-21)

In his book Lost Christianities Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, writes,

“In the second and third centuries, there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others who insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365.”

“In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that Jesus’ death brought about the salvation of the world. There were other Christians who thought that Jesus’ death had nothing to do with the salvation of the world. There were yet other Christians who said that Jesus never died.” (Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities ,Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, p 2)

This may sound confusing to Christian readers until one realises that Ehrman is grouping Gnostics together with orthodox Christians and referring to them all as Christians.

Christians do not have to agree on everything. Modern Christianity is diverse with thousands of denominations. Baptists and Presbyterians have some different beliefs, but they still regard each other as Christians and agree on the essential core doctrines. On the other hand, there are groups, like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which go too far and deny the essential doctrines about the nature of Jesus and should be considered as heretics.

The early church was not as unified as Pagels suggests. In Galatians and Acts 15, we can see that the early Christians also did not agree on everything. Paul and some Jerusalem Christians did not agree on whether or not Gentile Christians had to obey the Law of Moses, yet they both agreed that Jesus died for their sins and rose from the dead.

Adherents of a religion can be identified by their beliefs. The Gnostics had very different beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus and salvation. The difference between orthodox Christians and Gnostics cannot be compared to the differences between Christian denominations. Orthodox Christianity has more in common with Islam than with Gnosticism. Those academics, who regard Gnostics as Christians, rarely define what they mean by Christian. It looks like anybody, who believes anything about Jesus or claims Jesus for their agenda, is a Christian. Jesus would not have agreed with such a definition (Matthew 7: 21-23). If I say I am a Muslim, but I do not believe in Allah, the Koran or that Muhammad was a prophet, I am not a Muslim. Likewise, someone, who does not believe in the core Christian ideas about God, Jesus and the New Testament, is not a Christian.

The word “Christian” comes from “Christ” which is Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah”. The Jews believed the Messiah would defeat evil and usher in the kingdom of God. Christians believe Jesus had done this through his death and resurrection and the founding of the Church.  Gnostics believed that Jesus had come from the true hidden God to reveal knowledge of the truth. They did not believe he was the promised Messiah or Christ of the Old Testament. They cannot be Christians.

The Nag Hammadi discovery did not prove the Gnostics really were Christians. Historians have always known about the Gnostics and their different beliefs. Around 180 AD, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, wrote a five volume work, Against Heresies, in which he described and rebutted Gnosticism and other heresies. The pro-Gnostic Elaine Pagels admits that Irenaeus “however hostile, nevertheless is accurate.” (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, Pan Books, London, 2005, p 138) The Nag Hammadi manuscripts only confirm what was already known about their non-Christian beliefs. They do not somehow prove that the Gnostics really were Christians.

If the Gnostic Gospels were historical accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus written by his contemporaries, but they had not made it into the New Testament, then there would be some basis to the modern argument that early Christianity was more diverse and the Gnostics were actually Christians. This is not the case.

The New Testament Gospels were written by contemporaries of Jesus. Matthew and John were written by two of his disciples. Most theologians believe Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke relied on Mark. According to Papias, Bishop of Hieropolis, writing around 130 AD, Mark received his information from the apostle Peter (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:39:15). Peter is believed to have been killed in Rome during the persecution by Nero in 64 AD, meaning Mark’s Gospel must have been written before then.

Luke and its sequel Acts were written by the same person. Luke does not claim to have been an eyewitness, but relied on the accounts of others (Luke 1:1-3). Liberal theologians claim Luke was written around 80-90 AD. However, internal evidence suggests it must have been written before 64 AD. The last half of Acts is an account of the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul. Acts 21-28 describes Paul’s arrest, imprisonment and journey to Rome to face trial. Paul was also killed in Rome by Nero in 64. However, Acts ends with Paul still alive in Rome. If a biography of someone does not mention their death, it was obviously written while they were still alive. I have never heard of a biography written nearly 30 years after the person died but does not mention their death. The logical conclusion is that Acts and its predecessor Luke were written while Paul was still alive, that is before 64, meaning Luke would have been able to rely on contemporaries and eyewitnesses for his information about Jesus. Many theologians believe that one of Luke’s sources for his Gospel was Mark. This again means that Mark must have been written before 64, perhaps in the 50s.

There is no mention of any Gnostic Gospels until the second half of the second century. While Bart Ehrman regards both orthodox Christians and Gnostics as Christians, he has still written that the New Testament Gospels “are our earliest and best accounts of Jesus’ life.” (Bart Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, Oxford University Press, Oxford ,2004, p 110) He says Jesus could not have said the Gnostic teachings attributed to him in Thomas and the other Gnostic Gospels because “we have no evidence to suggest that Gnosticism could be found already in the first two decades of the first century – especially in rural Galilee. These Gnostic sayings must be later traditions, then, placed on Jesus’ lips in some other context (e.g., in the second century, in a place such as Egypt or Syria).” (Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, p 125)

When Ehrman examined the historical evidence for Jesus in his book Did Jesus Exist?, the only Gnostic Gospel, which he refers to, is Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, which he suggests was written around 110-120 AD (Bart Ehrman ,Did Jesus Exist?, Harper One, New York, 2012, p 76) and only when it agrees with the New Testament Gospels (Did Jesus Exist?, p 307, 321, 322). He apparently believes the other Gnostic Gospels tell us nothing about the historical Jesus.

Furthermore, Thomas was probably written later than Ehrman suggests. Around 173 AD, Tatian, a Syrian Christian, complied a harmony of the four Gospels called the Diatessaron. In his book Thomas and Tatian and Thomas, The Other Gospel Nicholas Perrin shows that Thomas is based on the Diatessaron. When Thomas is translated into Syriac, over 500 catchwords can be identified (Nicholas Perrin, Thomas and Tatian, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2002, p 169). These are words in a saying which can be associated with a word in a nearby saying, i.e., the same word or a similar sounding word, making to easier to memorize. This suggests that Thomas must have originally been written in Syriac.

Moreover, 51 of the 114 sayings in Thomas contain a textual variant which agrees with the Diatessaron. This means that Thomas and the Diatessaron agree with each other, but not with the Greek New Testament. For example, Matthew and Luke say, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay the head,” (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:50), but both Thomas and the Diatessaron say, “Foxes have their holes and birds have their nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head and rest.” (Nicholas Perrin, Thomas, The Other Gospel, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2007, p 83) This suggests that Thomas is based on the Syriac text of the Diatessaron, so Thomas must have been written after 173 AD.

In contrast, if the Greek words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are translated back into Jesus’ language, Aramaic, as much as 80% is rhythmic or poetic, which would have made it easier to memorize (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2009, p 158). This means that the words attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels were originally spoken by an Aramaic speaker and were not the creation of the Greek-speaking authors of the New Testament and they have been recorded accurately.

The Gnostics claimed they had preserved the inner teachings of Jesus which had been secretly passed down to them. Their actions suggest otherwise. They wrote these supposedly secret teachings down and circulated them so they could be read by their orthodox Christian critics.  Furthermore, Jesus told his disciples to teach everything, which he had taught them, to their disciples, the Church (Matthew 28:19-20). The early Church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Peter based his knowledge and authority on being an eyewitness to Jesus (2 Peter 1:16-18). John also said he was an eyewitness and was passing on what had been revealed to him (1 John 1:1-3). Paul instructed Timothy to pass on to “faithful people” what he had taught him (2 Timothy 2:2). Clement, Bishop of Rome, around 96 AD, wrote that Jesus had given the Gospel to the Apostles who had passed it on to the bishops and deacons (1 Clement 42). In Against Heresies Irenaeus (d. 202) said that the Church’s beliefs had been passed down to them from the Apostles and their successor (3:2:1-2) and these were preserved in the four Gospels (3:11:8). They were the inheritors of Jesus’ teaching, not the Gnostics.

In The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown claims, “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relatively few were chosen for inclusion – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them” and “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.” (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Corgi Books, , London, 2004, p 313)

In fact, there are only 24   known so-called Gnostic Gospels, Apocryphon of James Apocryphon of John, Apocryphon of Peter, Book of Thomas the Contender, The Birth of Mary, Book of John the Evangelist, Dialogue of the Saviour, Gospel of Bartholomew, Gospel of Basildes, Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of Eve, Gospel according to the Hebrews, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, , Letter of Peter to Philip, Pistis Sophia and Secret Treatise of the Great Seth.

The exact number of “Gnostic Gospels” is debatable because none of these are Gospels in the same sense as the New Testament ones. In his 1992 book What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography  Richard Burridge  compared the structure of the Gospels to biographies from the ancient world. Ancient biographies contained little or nothing about the subject’s childhood. They tended to focus on their careers which were usually made up of anecdotes or accounts of events and speeches. There is a lot of attention given to how the person died. Burridge concluded that the Gospels were ancient biographies. Since then most historians have accepted this and they regard the Gospels as biographies of Jesus. (Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2014, p 239-240)

None of the Gnostic Gospels are biographies of Jesus. They are not accounts of his ministry, death and resurrection, comparable to the New Testament ones. The Gnostic Gospels consists of Jesus’ supposed sayings with no narrative or context. One would be hard-pressed to tell from the Gnostic Gospels that Jesus even lived in first century Palestine. The only exception is the Gospel of Judas which has a plot about why Judas betraying Jesus was a good thing, but there is still no narrative of his ministry.

“Gospel” means “good news” (euaggelion  in Greek). When we read or watch the news, we expect to learn about what has happened. In the ancient world it was announcing that something good had happened, such as the emperor had won a victory over sin and death. The New Testament Gospels are “good news” because they tell what has happened, what Jesus has done and won a different kind of victory. The Gnostic Gospels are not Gospels, that is, they are not “good news” because their Jesus does not do anything good or great. He purportedly just gives some Gnostic teaching.

The fact that the Gospels were written as biographies shows they were intended to be taken literally and describe what actually happened. The Gnostics do not appear to have had the same concern for historical truth. The Nag Hammadi collection includes Eugnostos the Blessed and The Sophia of Jesus Christ. Eugnostos the Blessed is a letter written by a pagan philosopher to his disciples. It was rewritten as The Sophia of Jesus Christ in which Eugnostos’ words were put into Jesus’ mouth. The Gospel of the Egyptians and the Apocryphon of John are also believed to be Gnostic reworkings of pagan texts (James Robinson (editor), The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Harper, San Francisco, 1990, p 220). Putting a supposed Christian veneer on a pagan text does not make the Gnostics Christian. Rather, it shows their beliefs were pagan in origin. The Gnostics were not interested in preserving the actual words of Jesus. They were looking for figures through which to express their Gnostic ideas.

Elaine Pagels acknowledges their Gospels are not historical,

“Gnostic authors, in the same way, attributed their secret teachings to various disciples. Like those who wrote the New Testament gospels, they may have received some of their material from early traditions. But in other cases, the accusation that the gnostics invented what they wrote contains some truth: certain gnostics openly acknowledged that they derived their gnosis from their own experience.

How, for example, could a Christian living in the second century write the Secret Book of John? We could imagine the author in the situation he attributes to John at the opening of the book: troubled by doubts, he begins to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ mission and destiny. In the process of such internal questioning, answers may occur spontaneously to the mind; changing patterns of images may appear. The person who understands this process not in terms of modern psychology, as the activity of the imagination or unconscious, but in religious terms, could experience these as forms of spiritual communication with Christ. Seeing his own communion with Christ as a continuation of what the disciples enjoyed, the author, when he casts the ‘dialogue’ into literary form, could well give to them the role of the questioners. Few among his contemporaries – except the orthodox, whom he considers ‘literal-minded’ – would accuse him of forgery; rather, the titles of these works indicate that they were written ‘in the spirit’ of John, Mary Magdalene, Philip or Peter.” (Beyond Belief, p 47)

This may leave readers wondering how some academics can believe the Gnostic Gospels represent a valid alternative form of Christianity when they know they are not historically reliable. This is because their opinions are not so much a result of historical research, but of their worldview. They appear to subscribe to a philosophy of postmodernism which says there is no absolute truth and all beliefs are equally true. Texts, such as the Gospels, do not have one true meaning. All interpretations by the reader are equally valid. What the author actually meant is irrelevant. Thus, what Jesus meant, his identity and purpose, are irrelevant to the postmodernist. All ideas about Jesus, orthodox Christian or Gnostic, are equally valid, not whether or not one group has accurately recorded Jesus’ life, teachings and purpose. There is no true Christianity and heresies which have got it wrong. There are many “Christianities”.

Another postmodernist assumption is that “History is written by the winners.” This means the orthodox Christians won, their Gospels were accepted and the Gnostics lost. If the Gnostics had come out on top, they would have become the true Christians and the orthodox Christians would be the heretics. Again, the issue of which side better represents the real historical Jesus is irrelevant.

It may be true that the winners often write history. If Hitler had won World War II and we were all Nazis, our history books would not portray Hitler as an evil dictator. However, it is not always the case. The American lost the Vietnam War, yet they have written numerous books about the conflict. Likewise, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War with Sparta in the fifth century BC, but our knowledge of the war comes from the Athenian historian Thucydides (c. 460-c.395 BC).

The New Testament Gospels were not written by winners, but by a despised and illegal religious minority who were disempowered and persecuted for what they had written and believed. There were a few exceptions but in general, the Roman authorities did not persecute the Gnostics, which suggests the Romans understood what some postmodernist academics do not, that the Christians and Gnostics were two different groups.

The early Christians were persecuted because they refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. They believed to do so would deny the uniqueness of Jesus. The fact, that the Gnostics were not usually persecuted, suggests they must have compromised, denied Jesus’ uniqueness and sacrificed to the pagan gods.

Postmodernists tend to side with the underdog, those oppressed by the powerful. Thus, they favour the Gnostics whom they see as oppressed by the orthodox Christians. On the other hand, if the Gnostics had “won” and Constantine became a Gnostic, these postmodernist academics would presumably be supporters of orthodox Christianity.

Dan Brown says that Constantine decided which Gospels would be included in the New Testament at the Council of Nicea in 325 (p 313-314, 317).  This is not true. In Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code Bart Ehrman writes,

“The historical reality is that the emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude, and he did not order the destruction of the Gospels that were left out of the canon (there were no imperial book burnings). The formation of the New Testament canon was instead a long and drawn-out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead. So far as we know, based on the historical record, the emperor was not involved in the process.” (Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, p 74)

The early Church had already decided by the end of the second century. When it was still powerless and persecuted, that there were only four genuine Gospels. As already mentioned, around 173 AD, Tatian compiled a harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John called the Diatessaron. He did not use any other “Gospels”. In Against Heresies, written around 180 AD, Irenaeus argued that there could only ever be four Gospels because there were four zones of the world, four principal winds, four covenants between God and Man and the cherubim had four faces (AH 3:11:7) . Irenaeus’ reasoning is admittedly dubious but it does show he believed there were only four Gospels. Around 200 AD a list of the Christian canon was drawn up, known as the Muratorian Canon which included the four Gospels. Origen (184-254) wrote, “The Church has four Gospels. Heretics have many.” (Homily on Luke 1:1)

Orthodox Christians did not agree on all of the New Testament books by the end of the second century. The New Testament canon was not finalised until 367. However, the four Gospels had already been accepted for about 200 years. There had only been doubts about whether the General Epistles, Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation, should be included.

Eusebius records how around 200 AD Serapion, Bishop of Antioch, leaned some Christians in Rhossus had been using the Gospel of Peter. At first Serapion accepted it However, when the realised it was not orthodox and could not have been written by Peter, he rejected it and warned others about it (Ecclesiastical History,6:12:2-6). The fact, that Serapion had been previously unaware of the Gospel of Peter, suggests that it was not well-known nor widely distributed, and it was not on a par with the New Testament Gospels. Eusebius does not mention other incidents of Christians being deceived by false Gospels so it sounds like an isolated case. The Gospel of Peter is not even Gnostic in its theology. No Gnostic Gospel was ever considered as canonical and authentic by orthodox Christians.

The Gnostic manuscripts from Nag Hammadi are a significant archaeological discovery in that they show what the Gnostics of the second century, and later, believed. However, they do not challenge or undermine the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament Gospels were written first and were intended to be biographies of Jesus and record his teachings and achievements. They are Gospels. “good news”, because they tell what Jesus has done for us.

The Gnostic Gospels were written later. Even Gnosticism’s modern academic supporters agree the historical Jesus was not a Gnostic and he did not say the things attributed to him in the Gnostic Gospels. They may be alternative versions of Jesus, but so is Jesus Christ Superstar. They are not reliable historical sources for Jesus of Nazareth. The Gnostics were simply using Jesus as a mouthpiece for their Gnostic beliefs which there is no evidence existed during Jesus’ lifetime.

The Gnostics may have called some of their writings “gospels”, but unlike the New Testament Gospels, they are not biographies of Jesus, concerned with the “good news” of what Jesus has done. The truth is there is no such thing as a “Gnostic Gospel”.

 

 

 

 

Atheism and the Problem of Evil

One of the most common objections to the existence of God is the evil and suffering in the world. The argument goes, “God is all-loving and all-powerful. An all-loving and all-powerful God would not allow evil and suffering. Since there is evil and suffering in the world, God does not exist.”

The argument, that a good, all-loving, all-powerful God would not allow evil is basically a straw-man argument. This idea of God does not match the God of any religion. Its proponents have made up a God , who would not allow evil, and then argue that the existence of evil means their God does not exist. It is the equivalent of saying, “God is a pink elephant. Pink elephants do not exist. Therefore, God does not exist.”

How do they know God would not allow evil? Have I overlooked a passage in the Bible where God promises never to allow evil and suffering? It is somewhat arrogant for any human to presume to know what an all-powerful, all-loving, all-wise, universe-creating God would do, especially if you don’t believe in Him.

On the other hand, some atheists say because there is no God, there is no such thing as evil. Postmodernists, who tend to congregate in universities cut off from the real world, argue that because there is no God, there is no absolute truth, everything is relative, “What is true for you is not necessarily true for me”, so there is no right and wrong and no evil. Unbelievers argue that the existence of evil means that God does not exist, but if there is no God, there is no such thing as evil. Postmodernism cannot stand up to any critical thinking. The statement “There is no absolute truth” is self-contradictory. Some things, like the law of gravity, are true, whether or not you want to believe they are true.

Nevertheless, postmodernists are right to conclude that if there is no God, there is no source of absolute truth and one person’s opinion about what is right and wrong is no better than anyone else’s. Does the fact, that most of us instinctively reject the moral implications of atheism and still believe there are absolutes, suggest that God really exists?

The issue of God and suffering is largely a Western problem, based on a Judeo-Christian worldview. Those from other religious backgrounds do not struggle with evil. Muslims believe all suffering is Allah’s will. Hindus and Buddhists believe it is because of what you did in a past life and it does not really matter because it’s all an illusion anyway. The ancient Gnostics believed we suffered because God was evil, which might seem a reasonable conclusion. Perhaps we should ask why the Jews of all people did not also conclude that God was flawed, like the ancient pagans believed about their gods, but instead believed He was loving, merciful and forgiving? According to the Bible, this belief is not based on observing the world and all its suffering, but on God revealing Himself to Israel.

If someone is going to argue that an all-powerful, all-loving God would not allow evil, the burden of proof is on them to explain how God would not allow evil – a rather important point which tends to get overlooked. Anyone, who thinks about the issue for five minutes, will come to the conclusion that there is human-caused suffering, wars, genocide, crime and injustice, because there is free will. We have free will, so sometimes (most of the time?)  we choose to do things which cause suffering for others. How is God supposed to stop evil and suffering committed by beings with free will? Should God have stopped the Holocaust by sending down the angels to throw out the Nazis and replace them with liberal democrats?

Even if we are not sure how, many think God should do something about the really big evils in the world or the evil which other people do, but what standard should God use to stop evil, His or ours? God is holy and has a much higher standard of what is right and wrong than we do, e.g. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)

No one, who thinks that God should intervene with the big evils committed by other people, wants God to intervene when they look too long at a hot woman and stop them. They want God to intervene on their terms, but it is doing things on our terms that causes evil and suffering. Their idea of God is a God who is their slave who does what they want, stops others doing something bad, but lets them do whatever they want. Atheists are right. A God like that, with codependency issues, does not exist.

If God were to be consistent and intervene and stop evil according to His standards, we would be living in a nightmare, an Orwellian theocratic dictatorship in which every time there was a sinful thought, God intervened and stopped it. It would be worse than the atheist Communist dictatorships which stuck their lives into everyone’s business. Atheists tried to end suffering through totalitarian control. It didn’t work.

Would we be grateful to God because of all the evil and suffering He had prevented? Of course not. We would think He was an unbearable despot. Actually, we wouldn’t because we wouldn’t be allowed to think that.

if God did not allow evil, we would not know what evil and suffering were and that it was for our own good. God would arguably need to allow suffering for a while, so we could see how bad it was, so we would appreciate God stopping it. Perhaps we are in such a time now, but most of us have not got the message that our way leads to evil and suffering and God’s way is better.

In Joshua in the Old Testament God did something about the problem of evil. He commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites for their sins. (In his book Is God a Moral Monster (Baker Books, MIchigan, 2011) Paul Copan argues that we get the impression that more Canaanites were killed than actually were.) Atheists do not congratulate God for solving the problem of evil among the Canaanites. They seem to get upset about something which they do not believe happened and say how bad God was for commanding the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites.

How is God supposed to stop evil without appearing evil to those who think He should stop evil? Whether God allows evil or stops evil, atheists say He is wrong or doesn’t exist. God just can’t win.

Getting back to God and the Holocaust, one way in which God could have prevented the Holocaust would have been if Hitler’s mother had had a miscarriage. No Hitler, no World War II, no Holocaust. There would have been a lot less suffering for the world, except for Mrs Hitler and her miscarriage. If Christopher Hitchens were around then, he would have had said how bad God was for causing Mrs Hitler to lose her precious baby.

However, we would know that Mrs Hitler’s suffering was for the greater good and had prevented so much more suffering.

I’m not suggesting that if you had a miscarriage, that is because your baby would have turned out to be the next Hitler if he had lived. I am suggesting that sometimes cases of suffering could have prevented much greater suffering and we will never know why this side of Heaven because we do not have God’s omniscient perspective.

Free will not only hurts others. Sometimes we make choices which hurt ourselves. If we choose to smoke and get cancer, it is hardly fair to blame God for our suffering. To do so would only reveal our immaturity and an inability to accept responsibility for our actions.

In his book Godforsaken Dinesh D’Souza mentions the case of an atheist friend who committed suicide. At his funeral a family friend said, “God had no right to take that young man.” (Tyndale House, Illinois, 2012, p 6-7) I know this was the statement of a grieving relative who was probably not thinking straight, but was the atheist’s suicide the fault of God he did not believe in because God did not intervene and stop him from doing what he had chosen to do? Is God supposed to stop us every time we do something stupid?

God could have made us so we do not feel any pain, but what would be like if we were all as invincible and indestructible as Superman? Most of us would be completely reckless and irresponsible. There is a website Why won’t God heal amputees? which says that God does not exist because He will not answer the prayers of amputees and regrow their limbs. However, if God did always answer their prayers and regrow limbs, we would chop off our limbs and watch them grow back just for the fun of it. Or is it just me who thinks like that?

We were created with free will. We were also created to experience the consequences of our free will – pain and suffering.

If God were to miraculously end all the suffering in the world, it would last before our selfish natures led us to make decisions which caused suffering in others all over again. Clearly, people like us, who have caused suffering to others, cannot exist in a world with no evil or suffering? What do unbelievers think God should do about us when solving the problem of evil?

People like us also could not exist in a world without suffering because we are all products of suffering. Friedrich Nietzsche (and Kelly Clarkson) said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” The Bible says much the same thing, “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

It is through suffering that we mature and grow in character. The alternative is spoilt, sheltered people who have never learnt to be patient, diplomatic or control their anger because they have never had to deal with difficult people or situations.

Some unbelievers might say that if God were nicer to us, they would be more likely to believe He exists. This did not work in the Old Testament where God blessed the Israelites but it only made them complacent and they turned away from God.

I recently heard the expression, “The more blessed we are, the less thankful we are.” Australia is arguably the best place in the world to live, we have so much stuff, yet it seems full of people who whinge about everything. In contrast, when Australians come back from Third World countries, they often comment how people living in slums with nothing are happy and content. They must be an advertiser’s nightmare – they do not have all the things they must have to make them happy and fulfilled. The absence of suffering does not make us better people.

This presents a Catch 22 problem for those who think God should not allow suffering because people who have never suffered or suffered little, are not very nice. They are selfish people who are likely to make choices which cause suffering in others.

I have noticed that often success and the absence of suffering seem more likely to cause people to stop believing in God, rather than suffering. This makes sense. If you are overwhelmed by problems and your

On the other hand, I have seen many Christians, who get good jobs, get married, buy a house and decide they have what they really want, so they do not need God anymore and stop coming to church. We can see this on a global scale where Christianity is in decline in prosperous Western nations, but is growing in Africa, Asia and South America where they are experiencing suffering and poverty.

Many in the West look to the suffering in the Third World as proof that God does not exist, yet the suffering in the Third World do not necessarily feel like that. Dinesh D’Souza writes in Godforsaken,

“There is something a little off key about Western academics saying, “I have lost my faith because of the suffering of the Rwandans,” while Rwandans are saying, “Our faith draws us closer to the only one who can console and protect us, which is God.” I recently spoke at a prayer breakfast at the United Nations and had the opportunity to discuss this point with a number of African diplomats.”I am always amazed,” one of them told me, “that people in the West always think they know better, even about what we are going through.”He then wryly added, “I do believe we are the world’s experts in understanding our own experience.”” (Godforsaken, p 12)

If someone has experienced terrible suffering which has caused them to doubt God exists, that is understandable and I know such people will not be comforted with arguments about free will. However, it seems somewhat absurd for philosophy lecturers and other academics with tenure in universities to go on about how they cannot believe in God because of all the suffering in the world when they have had so little experience of suffering themselves. Perhaps, only those, who have experienced great suffering, are truly qualified to comment on whether suffering disproves the existence of God, especially since suffering often has the opposite effect and increases faith in God.

There are some forms of suffering, such as world hunger and earthquakes, which may not appear to be the result of human free will. However, free will does contribute to world hunger and I don’t just mean the way multinationals exploit the poor in the Third World. The increased use of biofuels to replace petrol has meant that some agricultural land, which was once used to grow food, is now being used to grow biofuel for people’s cars. This has resulted in food shortages and higher prices in the Third World. There are probably some atheists driving around on biofuel blaming the God they do not believe in for hunger in the Third World.

Natural disasters, such as earthquakes,cannot be blamed on free will, unless you choose to live in an earthquake zone. However Dinesh D’Souza points out that earthquakes are a result of plate tectonics and without the movement of these plates, causing earthquakes and forcing land upwards, the world would be underwater and no life could exist (Godforsaken, p 123-125). Perhaps we should think of earthquakes as something good and essential for life, which has gone bad. Romans says that all of creation has been corrupted because of human sin (Romans 8:20-22).

All the suffering in the world is supposed to mean God does not exist, but if God does not exist, what’s wrong with suffering? Isn’t it usually just natural selection in action? Why do we think the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing are wrong and not just natural selection and survival of the fittest?

When the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami killed over 200,000 people, some blamed God and argued that it proved He did not exist, but no one suggested it was good because there were fewer people to consume resources and increased our own chances of survival. Why not? Most people, who believe in evolution, are hypocrites, which is a good thing, because unless they are Nazis or in prison, they do not live according to the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest. We are supposed to be products of millions of years of violence and suffering, yet when we see violence and suffering around us, we do not attribute it to natural law, the ways things are, our instincts scream that this is wrong. Many peole believe in evolution in their heads, that we are products of natural selection, violence and suffering, but in their hearts, they do not want this to be true. They do not believe all this sufffering is normal and natural.They feel that things are not suposed to be like this. Deep down they long for a Christian worldview with justice, meaning and purpose, where suffering is wrong and will one day end.

In theology there is the idea of redemptive suffering – suffering which results in a greater good. An example of this is the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. Joseph suffered, was sold into slavery, then falsely accused and imprisoned, yet as a result of his suffering he became the second most powerful person in Egypt and saved Egypt and his family from famine.

Tim Keller writes in The Reason for God,

“Whenever I preach on this text [Joseph], I hear from many people who identify with that narrative. Many people have to admit that most of what they really needed for success in life came to them through the most difficult and painful experiences. Some look back on an illness and recognise that it was an irreplaceable season of personal and spiritual growth for them. I have survived a bout with cancer and my wife has suffered with Crohn’s disease for years, and we would both attest to this. I knew a man in my first parish who had lost most of his eyesight after he was shot in the face during a drug deal gone bad. He told me that he had been an extremely selfish and cruel person, but he had always blamed his constant legal and raltional problems on others. The loss of his sight had devasted him, but it had also profoundly hummbled him. ‘As my physical eyes were closed, my spiritual eyes were opened, as it were. I finally saw how I’d been ttreating people. I changed, and now for the first time in my life, I have friends, real friends. It was a terrible price to pay, and yet I must say it was worth it. I finally have waht makes life worthwhile.’ Though none of these people are gratefeul for the tragedies themselves, they would not trade the insight, character and strength they had gained for anything.” (Hodder, London, 2008, p 24-25)

Romans says “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). It does not say all things work together for good for everybody, everything which happens to everybody has meaning and purpose and good will result from it, only for “those who love God”. If we trust God and want to be part of His kingdom where His will is done, then our suffering has meaning. He uses it to fulfil His purposes so that we will turn from sin and depend on God. Suffering is a sign of God’s love for us (2 Corinthians 12:8-10, Hebrews 3:19, Revelation 3:10).

I do not know of anybody, who blames God for allowing suffering, who has grown from their suffering. For those who do not love God, who do not Him in control, sometimes there is no purposes and meaning to their suffering. S___ happens. Nonbelievers say this means God does not exist, but what are they complaining about? They do not want to be part of God’s kingdom, so God gives them what they want, a world of meaningless suffering, separated from God’s love and power.

Evil and suffering exist because God chose to create beings with free will, capable of good and evil, and we often choose evil. In His omniscience God believed this way was better than creating a race of Terminators, Stepford Wives or zombies, incapable of free will or suffering, even though He knew all the suffering which would result. God believed that the ultimate end, eternal life and joy in a new heaven and earth without suffering for those who trust that they are forgiven through Jesus’ death and resurrection, was worth all the suffering.

God also chose to be part of our suffering. Jesus not only became our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21) and died for them (1 Corinthians 15:3,1 Peter 3:18). Jesus also”has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). God in Jesus Christ became and experienced both our sins and all the suffering which resulted from them. All the suffering, which everyone has experienced, Jesus also experienced on the Cross. God took responsibility for all the suffering which resulted from His decision to create us with free will.