Tuesday, March 26, 2013

David Marshall v. Richard Carrier debate

Richard Carrier offers an argument against the reasonableness of the Christian faith based on a form of the problem of evil. Carrier argues that Jesus failed to inform people about things like germs, parasites, and proper sanitation and thus it is not reasonable to believe that Jesus is God as Christianity claims. The basic form of the argument can be summarized this way: “if Jesus had been God, he would have done X, Y, and Z; Jesus did not do X, Y, and Z; therefore Jesus was not God.” The fatal flaw in this argument is in justifying the first premise, but that issue can be set aside for the moment. Let’s start by looking at Carrier’s specific examples of what Jesus “should have done.”

Carrier argues that in order to prevent centuries of unnecessary deaths, Jesus should have taught people about germ theory, parasites, and proper sanitation. First, there is a considerable amount of naivety in such a statement. Even modern missionaries who travel to tribal cultures in today’s world can require years to communicate basic concepts of modern medicine to people from non-Western cultures, and that's only after said missionaries have had extensive training in cultural anthropology. While it’s easy to assume that things like modern medicine and science are culturally neutral and value-free, anthropologists know that this is not the case. So the idea that Jesus should have given lectures on germ theory strikes me as misguided. It would not have been understood. On the other hand it might have been a great strategy for him if he wanted to be followed and remembered by nobody.

But even supposing that this knowledge could have been accepted and understood by those first century Jews (which is simply not realistic), so what? Would these apostles of good hygiene have then been responsible to take that message to the Romans, and would the Romans have been expected to adopt it themselves? Perhaps in Carrier’s mind, if God had wanted to come to earth as a human being he would have done so as something other than an ancient Jew. Perhaps God should have made himself into a time-travelling 21st-century Westerner, because that’s what Richard Carrier would do. This appears to be the honest force of Carrier’s words.

Thus the premise that if Jesus had been God that he should have done X, Y, and Z has the dubious foundation that it simply starts from Carrier’s own assumptions about what God should do – and of course one of those assumptions is that teaching about things like repentance, sin, faith, reconciliation to God, and life after death don’t matter because – well, presumably because Carrier doesn’t think those things are real or rational. If Carrier DID think those things were real, he would probably have a correspondingly higher view of how important they are – and perhaps a different evaluation with regard to whether or not Jesus did what he should have done. If Jesus’ mission was to prevent as many premature deaths as possible, then perhaps Carrier is right, and Jesus should have taught about germs (even given the likelihood that such a teaching could never have been effective in the cultural context). If, however, his mission was something else (such as inaugurating the kingdom of God), then it’s possible that Carrier is totally off base. Rather than being a strong argument against the reasonableness of Christianity, Carrier’s argument turns out to be simple question-begging.

There are other problems with Carrier’s argumentation which are more nitpicky. Carrier alleges that Jesus said “nothing we put into us can harm us,” and implies that this is simply wrong because of course germs can make us sick. My best guess is that Carrier is doing a botch paraphrase of Mark 7:15-23 or the parallel passage in Matthew 15:11-20. However, Jesus does not say that nothing we put into us can harm us, he says that no food can make anyone “unclean,” meaning in the Old Testament ceremonial sense.

This is a bit of a surprising gaffe by Carrier – any lay person who has attentively read the Old Testament will have noticed that there are a lot of foods which are “clean” and others which are “unclean” for the Jews. This is known as kosher. Jesus was certainly not saying that nothing we eat can harm us, he was saying that food does not defile a person spiritually. This is a significant theological point but it has nothing to do with what Carrier seems to think it does, namely physical health.

Carrier also says that according to Jesus not even poison can hurt us (although the verse actually only applies to believers), but this verse is found in the long ending of Mark which almost all scholars agree is not authentic. Carrier should know that full well.

Carrier charges Jesus with incorrectly teaching people to eat without washing their hands in spite of the unhygienic nature of such advice. Clearly, argues Carrier, Jesus could not have been God and have made such a statement. Again Carrier’s argument flops because of his evident lack of understanding of rabbinic Judaism. The neglect of hand washing which the Jews who charged Jesus with(actually the charge was against Jesus’ disciples) was not simple hand washing for hygiene. It was the ritual hand washing that they believed good Jews were supposed to practice before, during, and after meals. Without the ritual hand washing, they believed the disciples were ceremonially unclean.

A bit of background is necessary here. The rabbinic system of ritual hand washing is not found in the Torah, but was later developed by the Jews. Thus Jesus responds to the challenge by challenging them: why do they break the commands of God because of traditions made by men? Jesus’ response to the question of hand washing was that food doesn’t defile a person spiritually, rather it is evil desires which motivate evil actions which defile a person. The entire discussion of hand washing (which is found in only one passage in Mark and Matthew) has to do with ceremonial cleanness and the theological discussion about the status of the Torah, a discussion which continued into the early church. Again, it’s an important theological point, but it has nothing to do with the use that Carrier wants to make of it. The idea of washing your hands for simple hygiene is not even in view. Carrier is misreading a theological discussion as a medical one.

Carrier’s entire argument also fails in principle. The argument is based on the premise that if a good human being would do X if it was in his or her power, then God should also do X. However, unlike human beings, God sees “the end from the beginning.” He is not so limited in his perspective as to see only the immediate effects of some action or inaction. We can make an analogy from parenthood. Very often as a parent I have to make a decision, sometimes painfully, to not do what my children would like me to do or to make them do what they do not want to do. Because I fail to do what they would do if they were in my position, from their perspective it would appear that I have fallen short of their moral standard. Often when this happens they announce, “No fair!” However, as a (hopefully) wise parent, I am able to make judgments about what is best which they are not yet able to make.

The analogy to God is imperfect, because God’s wisdom is not merely significantly different in degree from ours in the way that mine is from that of my children. My children will grow up and in a few short years reach the level of understanding of an adult and perhaps one day become parents themselves. God’s wisdom, however, will always be above us, so it is not certain that anyone knows what God should do in any given situation. It’s even conceivable that they might be way off, possibly coming to a conclusion which is the opposite of the truth as God sees it.

Thus the basic form of the argument as it stands is not effective for the simple reason that it begins with the very dubious premise that Richard Carrier knows exactly what Jesus should have done if he had been divine. It’s a variation on any number of skeptical arguments from evil – if there is a God, he should have done X, or he should have prevented Y from happening. The basic justification for the premise is that any good human being would have done X or prevented Y if it was in his or her power, so God should do the same, most often accompanied by an emotional appeal which Carrier also makes heavy use of. It seems to me that it is rather more likely that if God exists (which I am convinced that he does), that he would do things which nobody would expect. A God who only did what humans expected or thought he should do would be no god at all.

About me

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.