How to Reject Jesus

You don’t have to accept Jesus. I wish more people would. But no one has to. No one can make you nor should anyone attempt to do so. But you do have to respond in some way upon learning of Jesus and his claims.

There are a great many historical and in some cases ongoing debates about the precise mechanics and the degree of volition involved in the process, but the fact remains once you know of Jesus Christ and his claims in any real capacity (which, if you are reading this journal you now do) you must ultimately accept or reject him. Both sides of that coin are deeply personal and highly sensitive processes. The former is one of the central talking points of huge swaths of Christian writing, preaching, and outreach, and rightfully so. Christians everywhere are tasked with sharing the news of Christ in hopes that more people will come to know and embrace him. I am not going to talk about that. Instead, consider this article a guide for how to reject Jesus.

Before all that though, some clarification as to what I have said above. By stating that there is a mandate to either accept or reject Jesus Christ and his claims, I am not demanding a spur-of-the-moment decision. It is a process that often takes time, information, and introspection. A period of open-minded, curious agnosticism is not only expected, but can also be an expression of integrity and humility. But it should not be permanent. A permanent state of agnosticism (or as might be more appropriate given the changing census results on the topic of religion in America, “noneism”) says one of two things: either you believe the truth of the matter to be unknowable or unimportant. To the first I say, how can you know it is unknowable without simultaneously asserting the same ultimate level of knowledge whose very possibility you have just dismissed? The simple truth is that you can’t, and any any insistence that “I don’t know” is acceptable as a permanent stance on the issue just amounts, quite frankly, to quitting the question. And to those who think the issue unimportant, I think you will find as we unpack the claims made by Jesus of Nazareth later on in the piece, that the truth or falsehood of these claims would have radical implications and consequences on levels ranging from mundane to global. Furthermore, I wish to clarify briefly what I mean by the term “encounter” and what constitutes a rejection. By encounter I do not mean any kind of “road to Damascus” moment (see Acts 9), just becoming aware of Jesus and who he said he is. By rejection I mean, and this is quite important, anything outside of accepting him as who he claimed to be, namely the son of God. I do not mean only decrying him as a charlatan and a liar desperate for the spotlight. Rejection includes calling him a great teacher or philosopher, grouping him with great peacemakers like Ghandi or Martin Luther King, or even calling him a prophet on the order of Moses or Muhammad, as these things are not what he said he was. None of those people has ever made claims as grandiose as those made by Jesus of Nazareth.

Now let’s begin. There are a number of approaches to rejecting Jesus Christ as being God. I have chosen the four I find most common and most natural to assert. There are myriad convolutions that could be made both of the Biblical text and the surrounding history such that Jesus is denied his deity, but even if those theories prove more difficult to directly do away with (which in many cases they do not), they also make gradually less and less sense the more tortured the facts of the case become. Furthermore, they usually prove to be simply versions of the far simpler objections listed below with clauses, provisions, and other attachments in hopes that some good ol’ sound and fury will drown out their incoherence. In the name of Occam’s razor, we can say that if there is an objection to be had with any very large and weighty claim, it will be simple, and fairly obvious. We are then left with these:

Jesus is not God because he never existed. His “disciples” made the whole thing up.

Jesus is not God because he was lying when he said he was God. His disciples bought it.

Jesus is not God because he was crazy to claim that he was God. His disciples did not recognize his insanity because they were crazy too.

Jesus is not God because he never said he was God. His disciples lied about him after his death.

These complaints are the oldest, simplest, and best to be raised against Jesus’ divinity. They have answers for the basics of the Gospel accounts, and they put forward other possibilities as to what might be the truth about Jesus of Nazareth. They are tidy, or at least they appear to be. Moreover, if Jesus is not God, then the truth of the matter must be in one of these four statements. If you want to reject Christ, you must pick basically from these. As such, I will now test each of them to see which is the most valid way to reject Christ.

Jesus is not God because he never existed. His “disciples” made the whole thing up. This is by far the flimsiest of the four. Unsurprisingly, it has fallen somewhat out of favor in the past hundred or so years, to the point where very few educated people, regardless of theology, hold the belief. I won’t spend much time on it but will only say that there are numerous accounts of Jesus by the foremost historian of the day, Josephus, and many details provided in the gospel are historically verifiable in their own right through other non-biblical sources. Jesus of Nazareth did exist, that much is certain. This objection is just silly.

Jesus is not God because he was lying when he said he was God. His disciples bought it. Now we have something to work with. This recognizes that Jesus existed, that he claimed to be God, and that his disciples truly believed he was God. These points will be problematic for several later objections, but this one has no quarrel with them. It accepts them, but answers that claiming to be God and even having followers believe it does not a deity make. This is quite correct. There have been countless instances of rulers and charismatic figures claiming they were gods, and in some cases entire nations bowed to them. There is a reason we are not having serious discussion as to whether we should worship or reject the pharaohs. People gave their lives for Hirohito, and people killed for Charles Manson. What makes Jesus and his followers any different? One problem is the miracles. Not necessarily that the disciples said he did them. The trouble is in the specific circumstances of them, which, if we reject the idea that he actually did do them (as we must if we are to keep him from being God), require the disciples to either be either themselves telling parables or duped by the best illusionist in history. As it is difficult to imagine someone without supernatural power seeming to walk on water, raise a dead man or feed five thousand people with a few loaves of bread through sleight of hand, the best recourse if we want to rid ourselves of these pesky miracles is to metaphorize them, to say that the disciples were telling parables about Jesus. The trouble with this theory, however, comes when you actually read the accounts. In the gospel descriptions of these events, there is absolutely no preface or indication that these stories are not to be interpreted as real happenings. In fact, each of the descriptions of the miracles I have listed above is heavily logistical. The writers are very concerned with conveying the physical circumstances of each event, specifically as it relates to travel time and catering. These are not the stuff of parables. It is more similar to a police report. Locations, times, distances, and planning dominate these descriptions. Furthermore, we know from other passages what gospel parables sound like. First, Jesus is always identified as speaking, the characters in the stories rarely have names and are instead identified as “a farmer” or “a rich man” and the like, and mode and timing of travel are hardly ever mentioned at all. We know how parables are presented in the gospels; we know what they sound like. These are not them. And unless the gospel writers have invented a bastardized version of free indirect discourse 1800 years before Jane Austen (who, for the non-humanities crowd, did invent that) without anyone noticing or any observable advances in the field following from it, there is really no way they can be read so. It is literarily impossible, try as many might. So, if the disciples were not telling parables, they must have believed these miracles occurred. This means there are two remaining options: that the gospel writers, two of whom never even met Jesus, were fooled by some trick, or they really happened. This objection, while better than the first, doesn’t totally satisfy. It backs itself into the corner that Jesus, by sleight of hand or some other means, is the Jewish Cris Angel. Stand there if you like, but I think most will look for someplace better.

Jesus is not God because he was crazy to claim that he was God. His disciples did not recognize his insanity because they were crazy too. This one shows legitimate promise. In fact, there is something that feels vaguely irrefutable about it, not in the sense that it is unassailably true, but rather that it is very difficult to prove false. But we are not concerned with the burden of proof, at least not in the traditional sense. What we are trying to find is not grounds to acquit Christ one way or the other. We are trying to find grounds on which to ignore him. So, what if he were crazy? A schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur, perhaps a persecution complex or something thrown in for good measure? Could work. His personality and generally rational portrayal doesn’t totally fit the profile, but of course he was not the one with the pen in his hand. Let’s run with it. Let’s assume for a second that Jesus of Nazareth was crazy. After all, that’s been SOP each time someone has claimed to be God since. Then of course the disciples would have to be crazy or brainwashed themselves too, in order to explain how they followed him so fiercely in the face of danger after his death. That’s fine. Many people think that about them anyway. As a matter of fact, the first time Peter preached in public, people assumed he was drunk because of his enthusiasm. That event is actually quite illustrative for out purposes. It comes in Acts 2, after Jesus has died and (according to his erstwhile disciples) risen and ascended. His followers are in hiding, outlaws essentially. Then they rush into the marketplace, Jerusalem’s Times Square, at nine in the morning and begin preaching, because they seem to think that the spirit of God has inspired them to tell others about Jesus. In the text, they are speaking in the languages of the many foreigners assembled for a feast, though they do not know how to speak these languages normally. Another point for crazy. Sure enough, the people initially think they are drunk. What does Peter then do? Does he start raving? Attack his doubters perhaps? Nope. He makes a joke, saying we can’t be drunk, because it’s nine in the morning and the bars are closed. His speech that follows, while certainly impassioned and emotional, is convincing, sound, and totally rational. In fact, he constructs his case by reciting from memory long passages of the old testament and showing that they were in reference to Jesus. His argument is in fact so sound that he wins over three thousand people to a church whose entire earthly membership was at that point so small it could barely have fielded a lacrosse team. But, you say, rightly, look at Hitler, look at Mussolini! They were great orators who got hordes to join their cause while being, to put it mildly, bonkers! If you read the entirety of Peter’s speech in Acts, you will find very a different argumentation from either of them, but for the sake of argument, I will concede that one convincing speech is not a clean bill of mental health. But Peter did not write these events down. Luke, the same one who wrote the gospel, did. I will talk more about him in a moment. But for now, I enter as evidence a dozen carefully constructed and well thought out letters of theological explication. Meet Paul, né Saul of Tarsus. He is an interesting case in that, while he wrote nearly half of the New Testament, he never met Jesus while Jesus was alive (he had his own encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, but he never met him when Jesus was walking the earth and preaching). Paul is in a strange way insulated from the possibility of a cult of personality. While we have just seen Peter preaching with surety that Christ was God, Peter was Jesus’ close friend and could easily have been blinded by charisma. Paul is immune to that. In fact, he for the first portion of his life not only rejected Christ but also tried to stamp out his following on the basis that it was heresy to his Jewish faith. He then turned and became one of the biggest figures in all of Christianity. And his writing is marked by argument and rationality. The New Testament, and particularly Paul’s letters, do not read like some internet conspiracy website with red text on a yellow background, flashing popups, and liberal applications of caps lock. I implore you to read at least Romans and see for yourselves that this is no kind of breathless rambling, but is rather complexly reasoned and thoroughly thought out. The gospel writer Luke presents a similar problem to this line of thinking. He too never met Christ, but even more troubling for those who wish to write him off as mad, he was a practicing medical doctor, educated and trained. Matthew worked for the Roman IRS. These are educated, thinking men, not loons on the margins vulnerable to be swayed by a madman. All of the many words I have spent on this objection bring us back to how I began this paragraph: I don’t know if I can say this means of rejecting Christ is disproved, but there is considerable evidence to the contrary. It requires the turning of more than a few blind eyes to accept it.

Jesus is not God because he never said he was God. His disciples lied about him after his death. This, I think, is the most common way people explain their rejection of Jesus as God. This is comfortable. It hurts the fewest feelings to say that Jesus was a great philosopher, that he taught love, and that he believed in peace. It lets him be a good man, even a great man. It shifts the blame to those ridiculous Christians who make him out to be more than even he thought he was. The only problem is that it makes no sense whatsoever. It depends on one of two things: either Jesus has been misinterpreted by those who read the gospel, or he was misrepresented by those who wrote it. To the first point, I would recall John 8:58 in which Jesus says in response to being asked if he thinks himself greater than the Jewish patriarch Abraham, “Before Abraham was, I am.” The tense of the verb to be here clearly evokes the passage in Exodus where God names himself to Moses as the great “I AM.” Everyone listening would have recognized this and likely been appalled at the audacity of the statement. It is unequivocal in its purpose. It asserts, with no room for misinterpretation that Jesus claims to be God. Unless, of course, he never said that. Unless John made it up after the fact when writing the story of his personal hero. This brings me to the second option we have if we take this objection to be the case: the disciples forged it all. Jesus really was just a very wise and nice man turned into something more after a tragically early death. This theory seems to work. It goes through the gospel able to pick and choose what it accepts about Jesus until almost the end. Then it comes to the resurrection, slips on it like a vaudevillian on a banana peel, and faceplants. It has no adequate answer for the events that follow Jesus’ death. The disciples did not put out a fiction about the resurrection of Jesus and then vault themselves into wealth or status. Many say that the disciples lied to increase the legitimacy of their movement and thereby augment their own power. If the disciples were lying, why did so many willingly go to their deaths in defense of the truth of what they believed? They could easily have said, no, Jesus was not God, and then not have been beheaded, stoned, or crucified upside-down. They got no personal power from it. To a man, the early church leaders were hunted down, imprisoned, exiled, or killed. Maybe they using it to achieve a political goal, something bigger than themselves. Dying for a cause for which they thought Christ could be useful? At first blush it sounds reasonable, but given the political diversity of the disciples (Matthew the tax collector worked for “the man”, Simon the Zealot wanted to kill “the man”) and the inscrutability of the gospel’s political stances (“give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” Jesus was executed for claiming to be a king over Caesar), it is impossible to present a cause other than the divine kingship of Jesus Christ and say that the gospel is secretly propaganda thereof. It just doesn’t work. Did they go to their deaths without any reason other than hoping to make themselves look good? It’s too petty, and it failed anyway. They were reviled, beaten, and jailed in life and suffered greatly in death when all the while simply abandoning the ludicrous refrain, “Jesus rose from the dead” would have put an end to it. Peter and his brother Andrew gave up a prosperous fishing business, as did James and John. Paul was a wealthy up-and-comer in the political establishment before turning to Christ instead. All of them but John were violently executed for their assertions. John died in exile. And why in the world did those around them, who saw their fates and could have easily walked away themselves as we are trying to do here, look at those men and say I want what they have to the point where Christianity has become the single largest, most global religion in history? They had nothing! Unless they had Jesus Christ. Maybe the disciples were lying about Jesus’ divine nature, but if they were, nothing that happened afterward makes any sense. This one falls flat, too, I’m afraid.

I have not proven that Jesus is God. I have not tried to. I have only attempted to show the obstacles to the most common counterarguments given against Jesus’ deity. If after reading this article any of those theories remain satisfying to you, it is fully your prerogative to choose what you believe. The reason I wrote this article is that many people seem to think of Christ as a figure out of Homer, of the mind that because they do not follow him, they don’t have to wrestle with him. He is a heritage, a mythology in the tradition of Europe and early America. But this is a view that does not understand the real Jesus and how outrageous his claims are. The man said that he was God, that he personally created the world. While it’s easy to sit back and say that’s impossible, Jesus does not go away so readily. His claims demand you find a place for him; among the lowest of the low as a liar, a lunatic, or a prop; or higher as the very highest thing. Most are not inclined to immediately enthrone Jesus in the heavens. It is hard, in a bevy of ways. Ignoring him is easy, or at least it feels so. But I have tried to show why, when armed with the facts, simply tossing Jesus aside might be harder than you think.

 

Bobby Peretti is a Junior Film and Writing Seminars major from Ridgewood, New Jersey. He is likely following sports, watching a movie, or taking a walk

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