Michael Martin's "Case Against Christianity": A Critique

The Case Against Christianity (CAC) presents itself more or less as a definitive and comprehensive rebuttal. But one who presents a volume a mere 251 pages as a sufficient rebuttal to the complexities of Christian faith quite frankly deserves little credence to start, and Martin does little to inspire confidence with his content therafter. Let us move at once to an evaluation of chapters relevant to our scope of study (which is not all of them) beginning with Martin's "case" against the historicity of Jesus.

Did Jesus Exist?

Michael Martin's chapter on "The Historicity of Jesus" wisely observes that "(t)he assumption that Jesus was an actual historical figure is basic to all forms of Christianity." [36] None of the other beliefs of the Christian faith serve much purpose without the historical figure of Jesus. This is the first and last point of Martin's chapter that I find agreeable, and it is the very first sentence of his chapter.

One would expect from the ultimate "case" against Christianity in this regard something far more professional, even from a non-historian; but one finds rather what amounts to a summary report of the case presented by G. A. Wells, so much so that Martin probably ought to remove his name from the chapter and attribute authorship to Wells directly. Of the 98 footnotes, quite half of them are fully or in part attributed to one of Wells' works. (This is rather ironic as well inasmuch as that by 2003, Wells had abandoned his thesis that Jesus never existed.)

Not that it gets any better beyond that half: Coming in second place with about 10 cites is a privately-published myth-thesis by Robert Tanguay (of whose credentials, we are told nothing); after that, token appearances are made by Gordon Stein, Bruno Bauer (c. 1850), John M. Robertson (c. 1910), the Dead Sea Scroll conspiracy scholar John Allegro, and a select host of unknowns. Nothing is offered in the way of support from any contemporary Greco-Roman or other historian. (We shall see that Ian Wilson and Michael Grant are cited, but only in brief rebuttals, as they are decided opponents of the Christ-myth.)

In the final analysis, Martin's chapter on this subject contains little not addressed already in my own articles on this subject.

After a one-page summary introduction, Martin begins by identifying what he states is "the problem" facing those who take for granted the historicity of Jesus. He insists that "a strong prima facie case challenging the historicity of Jesus can be constructed" [37], noting that:

Modern critical methods of biblical scholarship have called into question the historical accuracy of the Bible, and in particular, the New Testament. In light of this...many theologians have argued that not much is known about Jesus.

Martin cites for the above and what briefly follows less than a half-dozen scholars; I could just as easily say that "Other modern critical methods of biblical scholarship have confirmed the historical accuracy of the Bible, and in particular the New Testament. In light of this...we may argue that a great deal can be known about Jesus."-- and then provide a lineup of the likes of Witherington, Wright, Meier, Brown, and so on, just as Martin has done. The point is that (as Martin might admit) this section is nothing more than a shortcut, and certainly not anything worthy of concern, much less useful for a book that alleges to be the "case against Christianity".

Here and elsewhere, Martin will employ the familiar "shortcut" tactic of simply uncritically accepting what is said by those whose data and opinions support his own presentation: We should not assume from this that he has actually done sufficient source-work or critical evaluation of all of the data. Far from it, in fact, as shall be apparent.

But now, to these specifics Martin offers [37-8]:

...W. Trilling argues that 'not a single date of (Jesus') life' can be established with certainty and J. Kahl maintains that the only thing that is known about him is that he 'existed at a date and place which can be established approximately.' Other scholars argue that the quest for the historical Jesus is hopeless. Given these admissions the question can be raised of whether a single date in his life can be established even with probability and if we know he existed at a date and place that can be established even approximately. Skepticism about the details of Jesus' life can generate skepticism about his very existence.

The next 11 pages of the chapter are spent offering a summary of Wells' case. Since I have dealt with Wells elsewhere and with his ideas in a number of places, I shall simply address Martin's summary in a counter-summary fashion. To begin:

Wells stresses that his skepticism concerning the historicity of Jesus is based in large part on the views of Christian theologians and biblical scholars who admit that the canonical Gospels were written by unknown authors not personally acquainted with Jesus, between forty and eighty years after Jesus' supposed lifetime. According to Wells they also admit that there is much in these accounts that is legend and that the Gospel stories are shaped by writers' theological motives. Furthermore, the evidence provided by the Gospels is exclusively Christian.

Each of the issues above we have dealt with here on Gospel dates, authorship, and composition; and the matter of the last sentence is dealt with by Glenn Miller's article on bias in the NT. We may therefore suffice here by saying that Wells' own approach is merely to cite uncritically the works of those who agree with him, though with some exceptions that we have noted in our responses to Earl Doherty. We need not pursue the matter further.

After this, Martin notes Wells' explanation for the idea that Jewish wisdom literature, and its use of a "personified wisdom", was the ultimate source for a belief in a historical Jesus. Of course this is simply an explanation, not a proof, and we have to ask why it is not easier to suppose that Jesus was simply identified as the one who was a personified wisdom (with which I agree)...other than that it fits Wells' thesis better to opt for the more difficult explanation. A couple of things worth noting here, though, are:

  1. Wells' appeal to Jewish wisdom literature represents a change from his original thesis that pagan mythology was the main source of Christian belief. (However, he records this change in his later work, which obviously, Martin, writing much earlier, could not have been aware of.)
  2. Martin, in support of the idea of a "tradition of crucifixion of holy men in Palestine in the first and second centuries B.C." [40], refers to such things allegedly recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, and the Talmud, which has Jesus "living somewhere in the second century B.C." The latter is an appeal to the Toledeth Yeshu, a document that is completely without merit historically, as we have shown in our reply to Revilo P. Oliver.

    As for the rest, Martin has not been specific, but my guess is that the "Dead Sea Scrolls" bit refers to the discredited idea that the Teacher of Righteousness was crucified (see our note in the section on Mara Bar-Serapion).

    As for Josephus, it would be no surprise if there were some "holy men" crucified in Palestine other than Jesus, because religious leaders in Judaism might well be at the forefront of any acts of rebellion against Rome, and crucifixion was the traditional punishment for rebels, but even so Martin offers no specifics. This appeal proves nothing in terms of refuting the historical Jesus.

  3. Martin cites Wells' claim that 70 AD was a pivotal point for the "historicization" of Jesus, in that the dispersion of Palestinian Christianity at that time would have resulted in a break in continuity and an inability to "have reliable information" about Palestinian Christianity back in the 30s.

    From here, a number of other conclusions are drawn, but we need not pursue the matter further than this:

    There is no reason, other than the need to support Wells' thesis, to think that "Palestinian Christianity" was in any way less adherent to the concept of a historical Jesus than "non-Palestinian".

    Wells here assumes that there was no one who would or could object to the historicization of a non-historical being, when in fact there were literally thousands of Diaspora Jews who would have been present during the Crucifixion Passover and would have known better, and this was in a society where social control was pre-eminent.

    There is no reason to assume, other than the need to support Wells' thesis, that "Palestinian Christianity" died out completely or was waylaid with terminal stupidity and/or silence following the destruction of Jerusalem, while the Diaspora/Gentile church fell ill with an exactly concurrent case of apathy and uncritical acceptance of the sort required to accept Wells' reconstruction of how later Christians "deduced" when and where Jesus lived as a person without even trying to confirm the details.

    One wonders, if there was a "lack of reliable information" on events prior to 70, how Josephus and Tacitus managed to get so much of it, in such detail and to such an accurate degree, on other subjects. If Josephus could track down things, so could anyone else of sufficient intelligence, and there were plenty of intelligent people in the first century.

Martin then offers a brief, general defense of Wells' thesis which he summarizes as follows:

The primary historical sources for an existence claim about an individual become doubtful if they are contradictory, report events that are intrinsically improbable, and are based on clearly biased writers who wrote long after the individual was supposed to have died and this claim is not independently confirmed either by other writers both biased and unbiased who wrote earlier than the primary source.

Aside from the "bias" charge, which we have alluded to above, each of these aspects may be dealt with in turn:

Interestingly, one of the reasons Martin cites as a late date for John is that its theology is "more advanced and sophisticated than that of the other Gospels." [44] By this accounting Paul's letters should be dated to around 120 or 150, because their own theology is far more complex than anything found in the Gospels; at the same time, it seems that Martin (Wells?) is unaware that the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that John is hardly "advanced and sophisticated" at all, and may indeed be the most primitive of the Gospels theologically.

Also interestingly, the only reason Martin cites for dating Mark late is his alleged "ignorance of Palestine geography", with the Mark 7:31 "problem" cited in the footnotes.

Wells also calls upon for support as a parallel the case of William Tell. [45ff] According to Wells/Martin, both Tell and Jesus were regarded as historical figures for many centuries; but we now know that Tell was a legendary figure, and Martin says that the parallels between the two cases are "striking". As we examine the parallels, however, it becomes obvious that this is overdone.

Bottom line, however: The "parallel" of William Tell offers no parallel at all, and is at the least worthless unless Wells/Martin can prove that their criteria have no application in regards to people whom we agree actually existed. Furthermore, we may also cite this major difference in the two: Tell was supposed to have been born in the late 1200s; fought in a major battle in 1315, and died in 1350. The earliest sources we have for Tell are from the century following, including ballads, the White Book of Sarnen of 1470, and Russ' Chronicle written in 1482. This equals from 2-4 times the distance between the primary sources and Jesus, according to "late date" Gospels theses - and beyond that are all manner of social, historiographical, and literary factors that neither Martin nor Wells even begin to consider.

Noting passages in the Gospels that refer to Jesus as a public figure who is known throughout the land of Judea, Martin asserts that "one would expect that (Jesus) would be mentioned by contemporary historians and referred to in the documents of the times." [48] This is not entirely true: Neither Martin nor Wells have dealt with the specific reasons why Jesus would not be mentioned in such documents, and why we are fortunate to have any references at all. At any rate, Martin again follows the path laid down by Wells, resulting in a treatment of the secular references, thusly:

From here Martin goes on to cite Paul as one who "seems to be ignorant of the details of Jesus' life and teaching" [52ff] - in essence and in detail using the same reasoning used by Earl Doherty, and falling prey to the same flaws: Inability to show specific need or reason for mention of details; not distinguishing between quotation and allusion and the difference in citation methods between the two; complaint over lack of "enough" historical detail to satisfy Martin personally (Paul, he admits, mentions the Eucharist and Last Supper, but since he doesn't give "a precise historical setting" [53], that's not good enough); the idea of Scripture-searching Christians inventing history based on the OT (this is how 1 Thess. 2:14-16 is explained); the old 1 Cor. 2:8 "rulers of this age" = supernatural beings error; the lack of mention of Jesus' miracles; and the arbitrary dismissal of the reference to James as "brother" of the Lord as referring to a group called the brethren.

Along with this we have a host of misinterpretations:

Non-Pauline and the Pastoral epistles are offered similar treatment, with the addition of following uncritically Wells' late-dates (post-90) of James, Hebrews, the Petrine epistles, etc. and a couple of the usual arguments against the Pastorals' authenticity, which we have addressed elsewhere. (Martin disposes of 1 Tim. 6:13-14 by the simple expedient of dating the Pastorals as late as 140 AD. [58]) Some notes:

Martin closes by looking at three criticisms of Wells' thesis, the first two of which are not really critiques as much as they are dismissals by professional historians who find Wells unworthy of detailed rebuttal. In this respect, Michael Grant and Ian Wilson have unwittingly opened themselves up to the response that they don't take Wells seriously. Martin tries to counter the arguments that some passages in the Gospels are unflattering to Jesus, and would not be therefore unhistorical, by putting "spins" on them, appealing to speculation, or begging the question: For example, the story of Jesus being rejected by his family (Mark 3:20-22) is only to be expected, since the OT literature indicates that the Messiah would be rejected [61]. There is also the standard misunderstanding of Jesus' eschatological discourses.

Martin also responds briefly to criticisms brought forward by Christian writer Gary Habermas, in the main by repeating -- several times, in fact -- arguments that we have already addressed elsewhere as they were presented by Doherty, to the effect that the epistle-writers seem "unaware of" or "ignorant" of "details" of the life of Jesus (which is to say, really detailed details -- Martin does not think that what we have is sufficient), although neither he, nor Wells, provide us any reason why such details should have been brought up.

In a side note, Martin chides Habermas for not refuting directly Wells' arguments for late-dating the Gospels and instead merely citing authorities who assign them earlier dates - which is rather hypocritical of Martin, as one who simply accepts what Wells has to say uncritically.

Martin closes by asserting that Wells' arguments are "sound" and that objections to it can be met. If this is so, one might suppose that Martin would simply end his book here and close up shop, but it is not to be: He proceeds much further, and because Wells' thesis is so "controversial" continues his work as though Jesus were a historical figure of fact. One wonders why, if Wells' thesis were so strong, Martin would need to proceed further, controversy or no controversy.

On the Virgin Birth and Eschatology

In terms of Michael Martin's fourth chapter of CAC, on the virgin birth and the second coming, little needs to be said. On the virgin birth, Martin simply offers the same objections that have been circulating since the time of Thomas Paine: And little wonder, for he apparently believes that Christian scholarship on the issue ceased in the 1920s with J. Gresham Machen and Vincent Taylor.

For his own side, he once again calls upon the privately-published work of Tanguay, as well as Michael Arnheim, author of Is Christianity True?, to whom he indebts, apparently, much of his material on the virgin birth.

Martin brings up 9 basic arguments against the virgin birth, all but one of which we have dealt with before in some fashion. They are as follows:

  1. The alleged incompatibility of Matthew and Luke. Martin insists that there is "no remotely plausible way of reconciling the two accounts" [107ff] and objects to details in one story being lacking in the other. For an examination of this issue, see here.
  2. The usual about the Lukan census; [108] see Glenn Miller's item on this subject.
  3. The usual about Isaiah 7:14 being misused [121]; again see Glenn Miller's relevant item.
  4. The usual about the conflicting genealogies of Jesus, [110ff] with no awareness of Jewish legal notions of fatherhood that would make Jesus legally Joseph's son, even with the virgin birth; see also Glenn Miller's work on this subject.
  5. The usual dismissal of the miraculous.
  6. The usual about no mention of the Slaughter of the Innocents in secular histories.
  7. The usual bits about the virgin birth not being mentioned in Mark, John, or the Epistles.

    In this regard, Martin says that it is "very hard to understand" why the virgin birth "would not have soon become an important element of Christian doctrine" and been "widely preached and promulgated." [114] It is actually quite easy to understand if we have a little knowledge of the social context of the NT; moreover, as a doctrine it would have been part of the missionary preaching of the apostles - and would have long preceded the epistles.

    Martin also objects to lack of mention of the virgin birth in secular sources, as if Josephus et al. were interested in describing in detail the particulars of Christian doctrine?

  8. An objection we have dealt with before from Robert Price, to the effect that it is implausible that a pregnant Mary would undertake such a journey; and finally,
  9. A simple misreading of the text, in which Martin claims that it is "implausible" [108] that the family should seek refuge in an inn when Bethlehem was Joseph's "hometown". The text does not say this, however; it only says that Bethlehem was the destination because it was the seat of Joseph's ancestry. (It is our hypothesis that Joseph did own land in the area, and that the problem of accommodations was due to their arrival at the time of one of the Jewish feasts.)

Thus it is that Martin provides nothing new on the virgin birth. His treatment of eschatology will require even less of a reply. A total of 6 pages is spent on the subject, and mostly argues that all of Jesus' sayings on the subject are "posthumous and inauthentic" [117]. Much is also made of the "this generation" inaccuracy, and Martin takes time to refute some eschatological views like Millerism that haven't been respected by anyone in the academic Christian community in decades. There is also nothing that would affect our preterist viewpoints.

I will close this short critique of Chapter 4 by pointing up a certain irony that has quickly become apparent in looking at Martin's book. One of the good reviews on the back cover is from one Peter Hare, who calls Martin "one of the very few first-rate philosophers who have had the fortitude and patience to carefully read much of the truly staggering amount of non-philosophical literature on Christian topics."

In fact, Hare is in no position to make such an evaluation (he is a professor of philosophy at Buffalo University, and is therefore a friend of Martin praising one of his own), but in fact Martin has done no such thing. He has read very, very little of that literature, and has accepted most of what he has read and that he favors uncritically; much of CAC far might as well have not had Martin's name on it. Hare's evaluation is badly overstated.

On the Ethical Teachings of Jesus

The sixth chapter of The Case Against Christianity, on Christian ethics, is little different from those that precede it inasmuch as it depends highly upon a small number of select sources and displays almost complete lack of knowledge of the social and historical context of the subject at hand.

Most of Martin's chapter is devoted to critiques of three particular authors defending Christian ethics, and touches upon the idea of God as a necessity for the foundation of morality. These are subjects outside of my purview. I shall devote myself to addressing only those areas of my interest, which is historical background data and charges of internal inconsistency in the Scriptures.

Martin begins with a few summarizing paragraphs describing ethical principles taught by Jesus. In much of this there is little that needs to be said, although in several cases it is clear that Martin utterly fails to comprehend the social context or point behind certain teachings of Jesus. He opens his descriptions by objecting that "If one expects to find a fully developed and coherent ethical theory in the synoptic Gospels, one will be disappointed." [163]

That is quite true, but it is also something of an unreasonable expectation: Such "fully developed and coherent" ethical theories are seldom found from the lips of any great moral teacher of antiquity, and at any rate, would have been quite useless to the majority of people who would hardly understand such a comprehensive theory and would have had little patience with the atomizing tendencies of modern theorists of ethics.

The common man cares little of the WHY; but he is greatly concerned with the HOW. Developed theory or not, the key point is whether the ethics in question actually work, and here, Martin is no better off. He objects that some of Jesus' teachings are "unclear" or contradictory, but as we shall see, if there is any lack of clarity, it is with Martin's own conceptions and lack of familiarity with the data and contexts -- not with the teachings of Jesus.

Martin begins in detail by evaluating the greatest commandment cited by Jesus, to "love the Lord your God" with the entirety of one's heart, soul, and mind. He supposes that Jesus' understanding of this command was more urgent and harsh than it's original in the OT, for he also supposes -- quite wrongly -- that Jesus thought the end of the world was soon to come, and so was "not concerned with worldly problems." (Martin confuses the end of the world with the end of the age.)

Martin cites as proof of Jesus' otherworldly concern Luke 18:22:

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

In this Martin fails to notice that this directive was specific advice given to one person, not a general rule. He objects also that Jesus "neglected his family for his gospel" but cites as proof (without actually quoting it) Matthew 12:46-50, where Jesus' mother and brothers come to seek him (according to parallels, because they think Jesus is mad).

How this amounts to "neglect" one can only guess: We have no indication that Jesus was his family's sole support and that his commitment to the Gospel left them destitute; furthermore, to criticize Jesus on this account merely assumes what is yet to be proved, namely, that the Gospel itself is without merit.

Likewise may this be said for the criticisms that say that Jesus predicted that his Gospel would cause division and strife (with the usual misunderstanding of Luke 14:26 thrown in the mix) and that not following it would result in punishment and damnation. If the Gospel was indeed untrue, then all of Martin's objections are valid to some degree; but if the Gospel is true (or even if Jesus thought it was true) then all of these warnings become not intolerances but fair and desperately-needed warnings.

Martin also chides Jesus for being "hesitant" in affirming his own belief in his position; for this he quotes Luke 22:70 -- an answer that we have shown is far, far from "hesitant" or unequivocal in the way Martin supposes.

Martin next turns, however, to what he believes are examples of poor or contradictory moral behavior on the part of Jesus. He notes that "we have been taught that Jesus is gentle, forgiving, full of compassion and universal love," [165] whereas the Gospels show that Jesus was sometimes condemning, angry, or a proclaimer of wrath -- to which I can only say, if we've been taught incorrectly or incompletely (and I was not), then we simply have to deal with it.

Now Martin also tells us that "In some places the synoptic Gospels teach universal salvation," but he cites only Luke 3:6, which says "all flesh shall see the salvation of God." This verse teaches no such thing, of course, no more than Luke 3:5 teaches a rearrangement of Earth's topography when it says that "every valley will be filled in and every mountain and hill will be made level." The word "see" here is optanomai, meaning to gaze at, as with something remarkable; this means nothing in terms of whether what is seen is accepted or rejected, and at the same time, the Isaianic source of this verse decidedly does not indicate a universal salvation -- merely a universal proclamation and observation.

Thus Martin can find absolutely no contradiction in the Gospels to the "narrow gate" salvation proclaimed by Jesus. He also fails to distinguish between the earthly ministry of Jesus, which was indeed directed towards Jews, and the post-resurrection salvation mission.

Martin then goes on to criticize Jesus for preaching nonresistance to evil, but having cleansed the Temple - failing to realize that the "turn the other cheek" command involves only personal relationships, not matters of social justice.

The Gadarene swine story is invoked with the spectre of Huxley, as it is said to describe cruelty to animals. "It has been noted that Jesus could have expelled the demons without causing the animals to suffer," it is said. [166] Yes, and Jesus could also have stopped every possible incidence of suffering in the world with his power: That was the jist of one of the temptations offered to him. Since none of that suffering was put on hold either, it is suggested (in line with the typical theological paradigm cited here) that to expel the demons without hurting the swine, while within Jesus' power, would have been an action contrary to some other constraint that God would not violate -- most likely involving the place given by man's fall to Satan at the time of original sin, whatever process that involved historically.

But even so, what of these pigs? How much does Martin suppose that the pigs suffered? More so than if they had been slaughtered for food? Wasn't their quality of life so poor that death would have been a mercy for them? If this was a typical possession, would not the internal consciousness of the pigs had been shoved aside, so that essentially they would feel no pain at all? If Martin is concerned about animal suffering, why is he killing bacteria with every breath? Does he wear leather shoes or eat meat?

I am obviously being facetious here. The bottom line is that to invoke the spectre of porcine "suffering" here is to assume far too much about what actually happened, and most of all, to simply worry about the wrong thing.

Finally, there is the usual bit on the fig tree which we have already covered elsewhere.

Then Martin alleges that the teachings of Jesus do not "exemplify important intellectual virtues" like reason and learning, but rather stress faith. True, but Martin lacks a proper definition of faith. Martin objects that Jesus offers no "rational justification" for his claim that believing in him would lead to salvation. What does Martin think that the authenticating miracles, especially the Resurrection, were for? Once again, all that has happened here is that Martin has assumed what he has yet to prove, and while he does think that he has discounted the possibility of the Resurrection in another chapter, he has failed to destroy the internal consistency of rational belief in one who makes claims like those of Jesus and offers specifically-attuned demonstrations of power to back them up.

Beyond that, there would be little point in stressing "reason and learning" in an age when less than 10 percent of the population was literate and the best education was reserved for those who could afford it, and the biggest questions of the day for the overwhelming majority people was, "Where is our next meal coming from? How can I survive another day, and without disease or pain?" How can Martin assume that our capability to pursue learning at leisure applied in the first century? And does Martin suppose that Jesus favored ignorance? Since he will argue elsewhere that Jesus' silence on slavery indicates endorsement of it, doesn't Jesus' silence on "reason and learning" likewise constitute endorsement?

In the next section, Martin goes on to criticize Jesus for things that are neglected in his teachings. "Jesus makes no explicit pronouncements on moral questions connected with socialism, democracy, tyranny, and poverty and what one can infer from some things he says seems to be in conflict with other things he says." [167-8]

One wonders what needed to be said on the first three topics that would have been relevant to Jesus' hearers, the vast majority of whom were peasants, especially as the first two political systems essentially did not exist.

Actually, though, the invectives against the Pharisees and the Temple cleansing count as weighing in against the local "tyranny", and we remind Martin that Jesus was technically guilty of sedition against the Roman state. But as to the fourth, and the allegation of conflict, all that Martin can offer is:

  1. A fallacious application of Luke 18:22 (as advice, again, to only one specific person). Contra Martin, this is not an implication that Jesus was "opposed to poverty and wanted it eliminated." He probably was, and did (Who after all is in favor of poverty in principle, and if Martin thinks that Jesus was in favor of poverty, where has Jesus said this?), but that is not the point of this teaching, for it is given to only one person, the rich young ruler for whom wealth was a particular trap. Jesus did not say that ALL rich people should do this; for example, Nicodemus was probably wealthy, but was given no such advice; Zaccheaus, who would have been fairly well-off, stopped cheating people and gave back what he stole with interest, but did not give ALL his wealth away; and Abraham was a wealthy tribal chieftain, yet Jesus indicates that he was in Paradise.
  2. A cite of Matt. 26:11 -- "The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me." Martin interprets the statement as a "defense" of the woman's actions, which is only partially correct: The point is not that the poor could or could not have been given the money, but that the woman was offering an act of devotion from her heart, and the objectors (of whom Judas was the chief, according to parallel accounts) were simply objecting for the sake of being contrary and out of jealousy. Jesus' reply essentially means, "If you're that concerned about the poor, you can go out and help them yourself -- you'll have plenty of opportunity to do so after I'm gone. Don't criticize her for this act of devotion."

    This is hardly contrary to wanting to get rid of poverty; no more so than giving to a charity for the support of the arts indicates a lack of concern for poverty in the inner city.

  3. A cite of Matt. 19:23-4, which is claimed to say that "a rich man cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven" - which is just plain wrong; it says that it is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven...the "camel through the eye of the needle" phrase being typical rabbinic exaggeration. It is not an advocation of material poverty at all, though it does suggest that if wealth is a stumbling-block to your devotion, you ought to get rid of it, in accordance with the "if your right hand offend thee" paradigm.
  4. Finally, a cite of Luke 6:20 (Looking at his disciples, he said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.). This is likewise no advocation of material poverty, but it does indicate, as above, that wealth can be a tempting distraction.

Martin then offers some comments on slavery, supposing that Jesus' silence on the matter equals tacit approval; on this matter, see here on this subject.

Martin then turns to teachings of Jesus that he says indicate that "one should not be concerned about the future," criticizing them because many modern problems are based on a lack of planning and careful consideration. He actually does not cite any of these teachings, but he seems to allude to such cites as the "many sparrows" verse.

If this is so, then he is wrong again: The teaching is not, as he supposes, that one should not plan for the future, but that one should not worry about the future -- which I think Martin would agree with, since worrying simply takes up valuable time that could be used for planning.

He is also off the mark in applying modern Western concerns to the text. As Malina and Neyrey write in Portraits of Paul [197], in a group-oriented society (such as is 70% of the world even today, and as was the Greco-Roman world), present-time orientation is the usual value-preference, which makes sense, since present-survival needs could not be taken for granted. Matters of the remote future are indeed of no concern, because any plans you lay could be confounded (cf. Luke 12:16-19). It made no sense to store food when you didn't have adequate resources to prevent spoilage -- you were just wasting time that could be spent gathering food for now. It made no sense to store valuables, because thieves were everywhere, coins rusted, and valuables could not be preserved from decay.

Martin speaks as one in a world with refrigerators and high-interest CDs -- and thus criticizes Jesus by anachronism. At any rate, his criticisms of this commandment are off the mark.

Next Martin turns towards commandments related to purity of heart and language. He notes that Jesus' teachings regarding the control of thoughts, emotions and desires (Though again, which ones he is referring to is never indicated; we are not offered a single quote, much less an exegesis) are commonly opposed on the grounds that

1) "people who are sympathetic with depth psychology argue that since most of our emotions and desires are involuntary and cannot be controlled, to condemn them as wrong and sinful causes unnecessary guilt and psychological harm." [169] and

2) if such commands are interpreted as not allowing any contemplation of evil at all, it "thwarts our imagination and forbids the contemplation of evil, for example, in art and literature." [170]

In regards to these, however, Martin does admit that there are counter-arguments that "such contemplation discourages wrong actions more than it encourages them."

Now in truth, the commands in question do not forbid "contemplation" in terms of the sort required for art and literature -- they obviously could not, for in order to obey the OT law, one had to be able to "contemplate" and understand what the law was about. They do have to do with repressing "emotions and desires" -- anger and jealousy, for example, are condemned by Jesus; Martin hints at the idea that suppression of "emotions and desires" is bad for psychological health, but if that is so, then total elimination of such things is even better.

But it is also, as Martin correctly notes, that defenders of these commands "assume that the commandment should be judged in terms of the consequences of following it; that is, in terms of the consequences of controlling thoughts and emotions" [170], although it should be added that extended contemplation for the purpose of satisfaction (for example, thinking repeatedly of committing some heinous act just to make yourself feel better) also seems to be in view. In response to this, however, all that Martin can say is: "Whether this is how Jesus saw the injunction is doubtful."

It is? Why is it "doubtful"? Martin offers not one reason to think that it is so; rather, he proposes that Jesus "may well have believed that certain thoughts or emotions were bad in themselves independently of their consequences." [170] Now we have asserted indeed that this was another part of what was intended; but Martin also asserts: "Emotions, desires, thoughts, and feelings do not seem to be good or bad in themselves." [170]

Really? So if someone has thoughts of hurting someone, that is neither good nor bad in and of itself, regardless of whether that thought is followed upon by action -- of any sort? I find such a premise hard to believe; likewise I find it hard to believe that Martin supposes (as it seems) that thought can be made independent of ANY action such that thought in itself can remain harmless.

He does admit that this is "not easily determined" and that there are cases where thought leads to social harm, as in the case of violent pornography; however, if he admits to this point, then he is hard-pressed to explain why a lesser level of thought cannot lead to a lesser level of harm that is harm nonetheless, whether to another person, or even to the thinker himself. The person thinking of hurting another may not have the ability or occasion or the courage to do so, but their personal relations to that person will indeed be colored by their way of thinking, and leads at best to a personal hypocrisy and dishonesty in their dealings with that person, and at "worst" to treating that person like a second-class citizen; if nothing else their internal conflict would be contrary to good psychological health. The inextricable connection between thought and action is not so easily severed, and this criticism seems to be little more than an attempt by Martin to find some reason to criticize Jesus' teachings.

Martin then briefly criticizes "Jesus' injunction against certain uses of language" -- noting as a particular example, "calling someone a fool does not deserve hell's fire". [170-71] Well, it does deserve appropriate shame, which is what is gotten.

Martin then says that "swearing may not be appropriate in many contexts and circumstances but in others it expresses emotions and feelings that could not perhaps be expressed in other ways and may have no harmful effect." [171]

I really wonder what Martin is about here. If he refers to Jesus' injunctions against "swearing", then expressions of emotion and feeling are not in view at all, but rather, making foolish and rash vows, regardless of emotional state. I rather wonder here if Martin has somehow misunderstood the injunctions against "swearing" to refer to saying things like "%$^*#", "@#*&", and "%#$"! Has he truly understood the injunctions?

Our last analysis of this chapter concerns Martin's critique of Jesus' injunctions of humility. Martin supposes that the humility commands might somehow prevent an experienced pilot among passengers from taking the chair when the pilot of an airplane drops dead of a heart attack: "In this circumstance being humble and insisting on some lowly role would seem to be insanity," he tells us [171].

Indeed it would. But Jesus advocated no such extreme as this, and Martin's implication to this effect is a straw man. Likewise, his supposition that the teaching that one should be humble by giving alms in secret, may be criticized, on the grounds that:

...the motive could be completely altruistic. The person might believe that knowledge of the donation will encourage others to contribute and, indeed, it might be if the person is well respected in the community.

This is so peculiar as to be unlikely; though if indeed such a scenario arose, I think it is quite safe to presume that a different paradigm comes into effect -- Martin admits this, but all he can say in reply is, "Jesus may have wrongly supposed otherwise."

Indeed? So it seems that Martin must now rely on groundless supposition and anachronistic mind-reading about what Jesus was thinking in order to criticize the moral teachings of Jesus. In the same way, it would be just as easy to critique the teachings of any great moralist. To show this, let's imagine Martin sitting at the feet of Confucius poking holes in cites from the Analects, just so:

CONFUCIUS: "If out of three hundred Songs I had to take one phrase to cover all my teaching, I would say 'Let there be no evil in your thoughts.'"
MARTIN: "People who are sympathetic with depth psychology argue that since most of our emotions and desires are involuntary and cannot be controlled, to condemn them as wrong and sinful causes unnecessary guilt and psychological harm. This advice also thwarts our imagination and forbids the contemplation of evil, for example, in art and literature. Emotions, desires, thoughts, and feelings do not seem to be good or bad in themselves."
CONFUCIUS: "Wishing to be established oneself he assists others to be established; wishing to be successful oneself he assists others to be successful."
MARTIN: "What if the person is the greedy head of a petroleum company, or the owner of a slave plantation? They're not interested in assisting others to be established, unless it helps them; otherwise they don't care if someone is established or successful or not. As far as they're concerned, 'others' can just die off as soon as he's through with them."
CONFUCIUS: "The superior man makes demands on himself; the inferior man makes demands on others."
MARTIN: "What about the armed services? Doesn't a superior man always make demands on others in the military?"
CONFUCIUS: "The good man does not grieve that other people do not recognize his merits. His only anxiety is lest he should fail to recognize theirs."
MARTIN: "The good man's motive could be completely altruistic. The person might believe that knowledge of his merits will encourage others to emulate him and, indeed, that might happen if the man is well respected in the community."

Martin's expectations are unreasonable and as completely off the wall as the dialogue above. Legal and moral codes in the Ancient Near East were never intended to function as exhaustive encyclopedias; rather they were for the purpose of education, and application took place at the case level.

Finally, there is yet again a misapprehension of Matthew 7:1.

With the seventh chapter of Michael Martin's The Case Against Christianity, on the subject of salvation by faith, the basic premise of the chapter is summarized thusly [202-3]:

There are at least four ideas of salvation suggested by the creeds, the Gospels, and Paul's letters. The first, presented in the synoptic Gospels, is that one is saved by following a strict ethical code that goes beyond the Jewish laws. According to the second, which was also presented in the synoptic Gospels, one is saved by making great sacrifices in following Jesus. The third, maintained by Paul and John, is that one is saved by having faith in Jesus. Paul seems to suppose that this is sufficient and necessary only for those people who lived after Christ came. The fourth, suggested in Paul's letters, is that one can be saved before Christ by following the Jewish laws.

Is Martin correct, and are there really four ways to salvation taught in the NT?

Actually, no -- Martin is only half correct. The NT offers only two ideas of salvation.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. It's always been known that the Scriptures teach a second way to earn eternal life, but chances are, you've already missed the boat and are ineligible: I'm talking about Martin's Method #1, living according to a strict moral code.

Technically, if you live by a strict moral code every moment of your life from day 1 and never do an evil thing or think an evil thought, you'll make it into heaven free and clear. The problem is -- and this is where Martin also misses the point -- is that no one has the ability to pass muster by this method. Only Jesus, by the reckoning of Christian theology, succeeded here.

At any rate, thus it is we see little need to answer what Martin was written on this Method #1. He is right that it is presented in the Gospels; where he is wrong is in thinking that this Method is not highlighted by commentators because they are too enamored of Paul and John and their faith-salvation method. The reason it isn't highlighted is because it's simply impossible, and why bother explaining to people how to do things that are impossible for them?

Our only issue for this section is that Martin cites Luke 13:24 -- without quoting it -- as indicating this method, which few can follow. Jesus' reply says nothing at all about a strict moral code being at issue.

On, then, to Martin's Method #2. He asserts that the synoptic Gospels teach that one can be saved by giving up everything and following Jesus, and offers as proof of this a story Martin has failed to comprehend before, although he does not offer it this time except in a footnote: That of the rich young ruler, which properly understood, reveals just how impossible Method #1 above is.

Now really: When that fellow professed to have followed all the commandments, do you think he was on the ball? Do you think he had actually followed every one of the Jewish laws perfectly? At best his profession is a typical ANE exaggeration for the expression of zeal (so that Jesus saw him as an ideal candidate for true loyalty); at worst it is a funny irony.

Jesus, at any rate, showed that the ruler had one big stumbling block: Here he had just given Jesus a compliment equating him with God; and yet, he would never give up his wealth to follow someone like that.

Martin, at any rate, actually realizes that the disciples' question, "Who then will be saved?" does indeed serve to point to the fact that "Jesus' ethical standards for salvation are so high that no one, including the disciples, can meet them." [199] But then he notes Matt. 19:25-9//Mark 10:29-30 ("I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields--and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life."), told with the parable of the householder and the vineyard workers; and then, after a bit of objection about how vague the parable is, concludes that it might be readable as support his #2 Method of salvation.

That doesn't fit the parable at all, since there is no indication that any of the laborers gave up anything at all (above and beyond themselves) to do the householder's work and earn his pay; nor, from a social perspective, is there any reason to think that they did. The parable does carry hints that one needs to be employed (believe in, accept the authority of) by the householder (Jesus) to get paid (be saved), and that how long you work for him won't matter as long as you are hired at some point. But this would permit Method #1 or #3 (salvation by faith) to be the major focus. It does not teach #2 at all.

Nor do the Gospels say, as Martin alleges, that the disciples would be "saved" because of their sacrifice in serving Jesus, although they do say that the disciples will be rewarded for it.

Method #3, salvation by faith in Jesus, is of course (we agree) taught in John and Paul, and we also noted in our item here that it is hinted at in the Synoptics. Martin does go on to make objections about lack of clarity in the texts, but he really hasn't studied the issues enough to make such statements authoritatively.

Finally, there is Method #4, which we need not address, for in practical terms, even if it were an actual road to salvation, it would have no practical use today, and is about as likely in terms of odds for success as Method #1.

Martin goes on to evaluate the doctrine of salvation, devoting a significant section to the question of "What happens to those who do not hear the Gospel?" We answer this here; for this essay let it only be said that this question is less often a serious inquiry and more often a straw man excuse for someone who has heard the Gospel to reject it. If God is fair and just, then all will be fairly dealt with.

We may close this response by noting briefly Martin's claim that the four routes to salvation are incompatible with belief in an all-good God. All he really does, though, is repeat errors found in other chapters. "Surely an all-good God would not want his creatures to follow the implausible, strict, ethical code laid down by Jesus." [204]

What's that? A perfectly good God doesn't want us to be perfectly good too?

"How could a good God want us to have no concern for the future...?"

No such thing, as we pointed out in in an earlier chapter review, is found in the Gospels.

"How could an all-good God condemn people for being angry with someone or punish a person with the fires of hell for calling someone a fool?"

How could an all-good God NOT do such things? I'm glad that God doesn't share the wink-and-nod, pat-on-the-head, aw-gee view of sin that Martin proposes.

Finally, Martin raises the irrelevant question of how extraterrestrials are saved -- which assumes that they need salvation. Personally, I think (as C. S. Lewis did) that if any such life exists, it has been advised that we are under quarantine and are best avoided.

Remainders of CAC

Here we will briefly consider those places where we will not be addressing The Case Against Christianity for various reasons that are indicated.

We will not address Chapter 1, as we find little that needs any argument.

On Chapter 3, and the matter of the Resurrection, we need not go into great detail. Much of what Martin offers up has already been addressed either by myself, Glenn Miller, or other, and thus we need only bring forward a few select observations of his.

Perhaps one of the most amazing paragraphs in all of CAC is this one [74]. I need not comment; it speaks for itself in terms of what desperate degree Martin is willing to venture in order to avoid any conclusion in favor of Christianity:

...(T)he believer in Jesus' alleged resurrection must give reasons to suppose that it can probably not be explained by any unknown laws of nature. Since presumably not all laws have been discovered, this seems difficult to do. The advocates of Jesus' resurrection must argue that it is probable that Jesus being restored to life will not be explained by future science utilizing heretofore undiscovered laws of nature. Given the scientific progress of the last two centuries, such a prediction seems rash. People are kept alive today in ways that only a few years ago would have seemed impossible. It is not implausible that restoring life to some people will be medically possible in the future. But, it may be objected, Jesus is supposed to have been restored to life without the benefit of modern medical technology. Still, breakthroughs in medical knowledge could make it understandable how on rare occasions people can come back to life without such technology.

Such speculations are the backbone of Martin's chapter on the Resurrection. I think they speak for themselves.

On Chapter 5, on the Incarnation, we will offer only these brief comments. With the Incarnation, we move from the court of hard data and plunge into the realm of the ethereal and theoretical.

Can we "prove" the Incarnation was real? Not by means of test tubes can this be done; not even by hidden camera. Not even by pointing to Jesus' miracles: As with the Resurrection, what Jesus did might serve to validate his claims to divinity, but they cannot absolutely prove them in the sense that one proves that two apples and two make four. Nor is it likely that we can achieve a full explanation of how the Incarnation works that will be satisfactory to our modern sensibilities: Modern definitions of mind, brain, personality, etc. are quite different from those of the first century, and these again are somewhat different from those held by the makers of the great creeds of the church.

At best we can achieve a reasonable facsimile of what the Incarnation exactly involved; and thus in one sense Martin's chapter on the Incarnation is quite deficient, for he does not even bother to analyze first-century ideas of what constituted a person or a mind -- not that we would expect even Martin's 36-page treatment of the subject to be adequate.

Martin's Chapter 8 is on possible Christian responses to his arguments. We agree that many of these approaches are of little use (such as Bultmannian "believe even without evidence" solutions). We feel that rationalism and in some cases a moderate fideism is a sufficient response, for Martin has utterly failed to make his case.

We will not address Martin's appendix on the Divine Command theory, as such is out of our purview. On atonement see here; our position makes many of Martin's objections, i.e., about finite sin and infinite punishment, moot. What does remain:

  1. He asks why it was necessary for God to sacrifice His Son, when He could have simply sent sinners to hell for eternity.

    Is Martin after having that option for real?

  2. Martin also misunderstands the satisfaction theory as having to do with offenses against God's "pride" -- it is not pride that is at issue, but holiness.
  3. Finally, Martin wonders whether another Incarnation would be needed to pay for sins done after Jesus lived and died; as God is of course a timeless being, when sins were committed in relation to Jesus' life is irrelevant. This also leads into the answer to the standard one about people who lived before the time of Jesus, which we address here.

Addendum: Michael Martin on Human Suffering

A reader asked us to look over and comment upon an article titled "Human Suffering and the Acceptance of God" appearing on the Secular Web and authored by Martin. Martin deigns to briefly reply to an argument by William Lane Craig called the "Suffering Brings About Acceptance Defense "(SBAD). Apparently Craig argued that because "God aims for the maximal number of people as possible to know God and His salvation," there are cases where God will use human suffering to bring people to Him. Thus it is said, "...Craig clams that there have been an increase from 2.3% to 20% in evangelical Christianity in 36 years in El Salvador, a country that has endured great suffering."

We will not presume to speak for Craig here, but it is worthwhile to comment upon some of Martin's comments in reply. To begin:

In conclusion: Martin overstates Craig's argument without justification, criticizes it with hypocrisy, and argues as though his subjective feelings and experiences were universals. As such, his reply to Craig, while pointing out the need (obvious for any argument) to provide an expanded database and become more developed, is primarily without merit.