That God the Creator is not visible to the human eye is something we cannot deny. Yet the astonishing claim of the New Testament is that the invisible, intangible Creator has made himself known to the human senses of sight, hearing and touch.
No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
In [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily
These assertions were the more remarkable since Jewish men, John and Paul, made them. The Second Commandment prohibited any visual portrayal of God and the Shema’ taught that God was ‘one’, thereby excluding any idea that a man or angel could be regarded as a deity. Yet such was the impact of Jesus that these Jews were compelled radically to rethink their ideas about God.
The implication is breathtaking. The unseen God has shown himself and he has done so not partially or as a passing glimpse, but fully and clearly. God has done this for a kindly purpose, to draw men and women and children into a loving and deeply personal relationship with him. Flawed and broken though we humans are, God has made it possible for us to honour him by our dependence on him and by our joyous service. In other words, we humans find lifes otherwise mysterious meaning now revealed in knowing and loving the One who has come to us.
God has revealed himself in this way in and through the Messiah Jesus at a particular time and a particular place, that is, in Palestine in the era of the Roman emperor Tiberius. In other words God has done this at a historical moment, as documented in the Gospels.
These Gospels have two unique and connected characteristics. They are historical biographies about Jesus back then (and would have been recognised as such at the time) but equally they are the word of God to us now. God meets us dynamically and spiritually as we read and hear the gospel, which is God’s own and living word.
Atheists and History[i]
Aggressive atheists who seek to disprove God make historical attacks on the New Testament as part of their strategy. Their instincts are correct. Destroy the historical credibility of the Gospels and you destroy the credibility of Jesus and by so doing destroy belief in God. Christopher Hitchens is clear:
The case for biblical consistency or authenticity or ‘inspiration’ has been in tatters for some time, and the rents and tears only become more obvious with better research, and thus no ‘revelation’ can be derived from that quarter.[ii]
Hitchens is wide of the mark in asserting that “the case for biblical consistency has been in tatters” but he is correct in seeing the importance of attacking the Bible as a way of discrediting belief in God.
This provokes the question: how well do these prominent atheists know the Bible and its historical setting? In fact: surprisingly not very well, despite their high qualifications in other disciplines.
Richard Dawkins refers to anecdotes about the boy Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas[iii] which he confuses with the Infancy Story of Thomas; the Gospel of Thomas contains no narrative but is a collage of Jesus’ words. Even worse, Dawkins attributes the story of the Magi to the Gospel of Luke when it appears in the Gospel of Matthew.[iv] Dawkins goes so far as to question the very existence of Jesus.[v] Here he depends on the opinions of Professor G.A. Wells, who, however, is not a historian but a scholar in German studies. No reputable ancient historian doubts that Jesus was genuine figure of history. Again, Dawkins reveals his ignorance in ascribing a tribal harshness (out-group hostility) to Jesus as in the Old Testament.[vi] But Jesus’ “friendship with sinners” and social outcasts is one of the most secure details about him. Finally, Dawkins is wrong in asserting the Gospels were as much works of fiction as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.[vii] Biblical scholars, however, have reached a consensus in viewing the Gospels as identifiable historical biographies.[viii]
Another prominent atheist is Michel Onfray who thinks the hope of eternal life is based on the monotheistic faiths arising in the desert.
I thought of the lands of Israel, Judaea and Samaria, of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Places where the sun bakes men’s heads, desiccates their bodies, afflicts their souls with thirst. Places that generate a yearning for oases where water flows cool, clear and free, where the air is balmy and fragrant, where food and drink are abundant. The afterlife suddenly struck me as a counterworld invented by men exhausted and parched by their ceaseless wanderings across the dunes or up and down rocky trails baked to white heat.[ix]
This is incorrect. Lakeside Galilee is admittedly hot in the summer but in a sub-tropical not desert sense. It is a lush fertile area that grows bananas, mangos and avocados in abundance.
More could be said. It is clear from these serious errors that Dawkins, Hitchens and Onfray are not well informed about the New Testament or its historical and geographical setting. Their errors, however, serve to make us appreciate the true authenticity of these texts in their contexts.
The Gospels, History and God
Belief in the credibility of the Gospels in itself does not bring one into contact with God. This occurs as we hear and personally engage with the message of God’s love. If, however, we believe there are serious and substantial doubts about the veracity of the texts then it is difficult for us to hear God speaking through them. The aggressive atheists betray inferior knowledge of the New Testament but they are right in seeing those texts as worthy targets of their attacks.
My argument, however, is that the data about Jesus the Messiah in the New Testament is soundly based according to the highest standards of historical analysis. We should be confident in believing Jesus’ words to us and in his death and resurrection for us. By doing so we are brought into the presence of God.
[i]This section owes much to an unpublished paper of Dr Jon Dickson, The Nouveaux Atheists, delivered at Macquarie University Sydney (10 May, 2008).
[ii]Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve, 2007),122.
[iii]Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 2006), 96
[iv] Dawkins, Delusion, 94.
[v]Dawkins, Delusion, 250
[vi] Dawkins, Delusion, 257.
[vii] Dawkins, Delusion, 97.
[viii]See generally R.A. Burridge, What are the Gospels: A Comparison With Graeco-Roman Biography. Cambridge University Press, 1992).
[ix] Michel Onfray, Atheist Manifesto (Arcade Publishing 2005), xi.