Your One Best Answer to People Who Say Jesus Never Existed (And Other Skeptical Claims)
It’s that time of the year again, when magazines, newspapers, websites and cable channels will try to tell us again that Jesus never existed, or He was married to Mary Magdalene, or that He blessed a gay marriage.
Are you ready for the challenge? You can be. I’ve got one answer that will work for a whole bunch of them. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of study at all. Enjoy that while it lasts: Usually I’m big on encouraging everyone to bone up.
So here’s the one quick answer for a host of challenges: What’s your evidence for that?
Let me show you a few examples of how it works; then I’ll explain a couple of general principles at the end.
”Jesus never existed.”
My daughter got that one from a biology prof in college. Really? Sorry, prof, but you’re in the wrong discipline for that; it’s not a biology question, it’s a history question. And serious, credible scholars in the field, both Christian and non-Christian, all agree that Jesus really lived. Most of them even agree that he was a teacher who did extraordinary works. Of course not all go all the way to believing he was the Son of God who lived, died, and rose again. But they believe a lot more than the “Jesus mythicists” would have you think.
Yes, the mythicists are out there. In their private conversations at least, however, true academic historians of the Ancient Near East call the mythicists cranks. I won’t name names, but one of them gets a good talking-to here. The famous skeptic Bart Ehrman — who in fact recently declared himself an atheist — devoted a book to debunking this fringe belief. There’s a lot in Christianity Ehrman disagrees with, but not this much of it.
So when you ask, then, “Where’s your evidence for this?” watch out for who they rely on for authorities. Chances are pretty much 100 percent that they’re calling on a verifiable crank to support their theory.
The Story of Jesus Was Borrowed from Mithras, or Horus, or Isis, or Apollonius of Tyana, or …
This one gained favor with a book by Fraser called The Golden Bough. It’s a lovely theory, hampered only by all the facts lined up against it on every side. But go ahead. Ask, “Where’s your evidence?” Consider the Mithras claim, which is the one I run into most often. The story itself runs into a problem. All that we know about this Mithra character comes from after the time of Christ. It’s hard to see how the story of Jesus could have been borrowed from one that came long afterward!
The supposed parallels with Horus, Isis, and so on all fail when examined closely. I’ll link you to one example (which also helps show how Ehrman errs on many things). Others are easy enough to find, too.
“Jesus Was Married to Mary Magdalene”
This one’s even easier. “Where’s your evidence?” The best I can find for it is that Dan Brown made a ton of money by imagining it in The Da Vinci Code a few years back. As for primary evidence found anywhere near the time of the events, there isn’t even a hint of a suggestion of a clue of a fragment of a possibility.
“The Emperor Constantine Decided What the Church Should Believe”
See the previous answer. The only difference is that this story is older than The Da Vinci Code. Otherwise it stacks up about the same. “Where’s your evidence?” There isn’t any.
“The Church Suppressed the Real Gospels”
“Where’s your evidence?” There are lots and lots of supposed gospels, and people will trot them all out as if they signified something important. Which they do: They show that Jesus was popular enough in the second through the fourth centuries for a lot of people to make up stories about Him. But it’s very, very certain that none of these “lost gospels” has any claim to being authentic accounts of Jesus. J. Warner Wallace covers all the easily falsifiable claims here.
Where’s Your Evidence?
There are times when this question is useful and times when it isn’t. Generally speaking, it’s a good one to ask when someone claims something to be true. It doesn’t matter what it the claim is, usually; if they say it’s true, you have the right to ask why they think so.
All of the above examples are like that: The challenger is saying he or she knows something to be true about the life of Jesus or early Christianity.
Watch out for the common counter-move: “Well, where’s your evidence that it isn’t true?” If you’ve started out by asking them for their evidence, you really don’t have to provide your own. Why not? Because you haven’t made a claim! Why should you have to provide evidence for something you never even said?
But there are times when we Christians do make claims. Then we should be expect that question to come right back toward us. And we should be prepared for it (see 1 Peter 3:15). When we say Jesus rose from the grave, for example, we really ought to be ready to give reasons for believing it.
You might wonder, then, ”Where’s our evidence? There’s plenty of it out there, I assure you. I’ll be glad to suggest three sites for you to search through for it. Or you could read a good book. My favorite is J. Warner Wallace’s Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. It’s highly informative and incredibly readable.
This is a season for crank claims. Don’t swallow them. Use your head. Ask questions. Ask for the evidence.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens (Kregel Publications, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.