Some atheists have challenged me with what is called the “one less god” argument. Let me try to sum it up in a fair way: there are many contradictory religions in the world, therefore none of them can be true. While some may be skeptics of the Bible, I am a skeptic of other gods. Since theism in any form requires faith in the unseen, how can any of them be proven? How can I be sure that Christ is God over Allah? Or the Hindu gods?
I’ve noticed that non-believers making this argument love to compare the Hebrew God to Zeus, a deity no one believes in anymore. So in this blog I want to present a Christian response to this admittedly good point. I’ll even try to take the Zeus comparison seriously, because there is a distinct rational reason to believe in Christ over any Greek god.
For further reading, the two best resources on this subject are Lee Strobel’s groundbreaking apologetics book, The Case for Christ. Strobel has also written a sequel, The Case for the Real Jesus. I also recommend J. Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity. These are compelling reads because they set aside cognitive bias sometimes common among Christian apologists: both men were atheists until they investigated the matter for themselves.
Let me begin by explaining what I call “The Core of Belief” principle. Every belief system in the world has a foundation, usually the writings of its founders. For example, the core of Islam is the Quran. While atheists deny that their view is a belief system, but a lack thereof, it does in fact have a core in the writings of philosophers like Epicurus, Nietzsche and Russell. I’m not sure why they don’t want to acknowledge this, as if it’s something to be ashamed of.
But I digress. The core of Christianity isn’t just the Bible. It isn’t even precisely the New Testament. You can look beyond the four gospels and what they point to: the resurrection of Christ.
So just for fun, let’s compare Christ to Zeus. According to Greek mythology, Zeus lived on Mount Olympus, a mythical place. He sometimes came to Earth, mostly to impregnate beautiful human women, much to the ire of his sister/wife, Hera. Carl Jung claimed that religious tales spring from the complicated psyche of the human mind; and in the case of Greek mythology I certainly agree. But this mythology never defines an exact time or place when any of Zeus’s philandering occurred.
The New Testament, meanwhile, actually tells us that Jesus lived in early first century Roman-occupied Palestine. It invites historical scrutiny on itself, daring the reader to examine its claims. In all three of the books I’ve mentioned (and countless others), Strobel and Wallace both did just that. What they found is that, surprisingly, the bedrock of Christianity is rock-solid.
First, let’s see if the four gospels have environmental tells to support their setting. In Luke 2:1-3, Mary and Joseph return to Bethlehem for a census ordered by Syrian governor named Quirinius. Matthew, however, record that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died nine years prior to Quirinius’ governorship according to Josephus. This contradiction between historical record and the gospels is pointed out by skeptics, but archaeology has helped solved the riddle. Quirinius’ name has been discovered on a coin from the time period, and the base of a statue in Pisidian Antioch, meaning that another Quirinius was proconsul of Syria and Cilica from 11 BC to the death of Herod.
Another discrepancy in Luke can be solved by a similar discovery. Luke 3:1 describes a tetrarch named Lysanias over Abeline. Josephus records a Lysanias reigning from 40-36 BC, far too soon to have occurred during the ministry of John the Baptist. However, two inscriptions bearing the name of Lysanias have been found dating from AD 14-37, confirming a second tetrarch reigning during the time period described by Luke.
Until 1888, no evidence existed for the pool of Bethesda in John 5:1-9, another target of skeptics. But excavators near St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem discovered the ancient remains of the pool, complete with steps. The Dead Sea Scroll discovery included a copper scroll (written between AD 25 and 68) mentioning a pool called “Beth Eshdathayin.”
The pool of Siloam from John 9:1-12 was discovered by archaeologists in 2004 and was dated to have been in use from 100 BC to 100 AD.
There are more examples, but the point is that based on environmental clues, the gospels are in fact a product of early first-century Palestine. If they were fiction invented by Nicene Council in the early 300s AD (a favorite claim of atheists), they wouldn’t corroborated by archaeology in such exact details (this is also a complete misrepresentation of what the Nicene Council was about).
When trying to reconstruct the past, historians have two criteria to determine the accuracy of ancient documents: how many of them they can find, and how close they date to the original event they describe. For perspective’s sake, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote the Annals of Imperial Rome in AD 116. We have very few copies, the earliest from 850 AD, a little over 700 years later, yet this is still considered historically reliable.
The most documented event in ancient history, bar none, is the life of Christ. Some New Testament scholars have called what we have “an embarrassing treasure trove of manuscripts.” More than five thousand copies of the four gospels have been catalogued from the centuries following Christ, some as early as thirty years after the original (the earliest papyri of John’s gospel dates to as early as 98 AD). This is a mountain of evidence compared to the sparse documentation of most other ancient events.
Let’s make a comparison to two other historical figures, William Shakespeare and Alexander the Great. Historians generally don’t deny that either existed, but their earliest biographies appear several centuries after their deaths. And the copies of those accounts are few and far between. Most skeptics never question the existence of Shakespeare or Alexander, but there is more evidence Jesus existed than the both of them combined. Why deny the historical reality of Jesus, when it more than passes the litmus test of historical accuracy? To do so, quite frankly, is to pick and choose who to believe in and who not to.
But if you think the four gospels are too biased to be trusted, there’s more. Jesus’ ministry is also attested to by other historians from the time. The outline of his entire life can be reconstructed (perfectly matching the gospels) by reading Josephus, Tacitus, and Africanus. Not all of these are sources friendly to Christianity, meaning that they had every reason to discredit Christ or His resurrection. The Jewish Talmud accuses Jesus of misleading the people with “sorcery and magic” (an acknowledgment that He at least seemed to possess supernatural powers). Pliny the Younger, governor of Bythnia, despised Christians and persecuted many of them, yet still provides us with a Roman account (from about 111 AD) of their beliefs and an acknowledgment that their Savior was a real person.
This kind of corroborating evidence doesn’t exist for any other figure in ancient history. There is no mention of Shakespeare or Alexander from their own time periods. The darkness striking the world at Christ’s crucifixion is even verified by the historian Thallus, who described a “great eclipse of the sun” in “the fourth year of the 202nd Olympia (about 33 AD).” He even mentions that it was accompanied by a great earthquake!
So what of the resurrection? In Cold Case Christianity, Wallace applies everything he knows about the science of eyewitness accounts to the four gospels, and determines that they bare all the marks of accurate descriptions of what happened. For example, the disciples were lacking the three basic motives to fabricate the story (money, power, or sex). They willfully took on lives of suffering and hardship due to an apparent conviction that they had seen Christ alive after His crucifixion. Their description of women discovering the body of Jesus missing makes no sense as a lie within the historical context. In ancient Palestine, women were considered lower-class citizens and their testimony such an event would have been immediately dismissed as unreliable. Had the disciples made up the story, they would have clearly made themselves the ones who discovered the empty tomb or seen Jesus in the garden immediately afterwards.
Furthermore, comparing the immediate aftermath of the resurrection of Christ draws a sharp contrast to other self-proclaimed Messiahs. Unbeknownst to a lot of people, Jesus wasn’t the only Jewish teacher who claimed to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament Messianic prophesies. Consider the following: Simon bar Kokhba (birth unknown – 135 AD), Moses of Crete (440-471 AD), Abu Isa, Yudghan, and Serene (all 8th century). Every one of these men claimed to be the Messiah, and all of them had followings comparable to that of Jesus. The difference is that after their deaths, their movements fizzled out. Yet it’s clear that within weeks following the crucifixion of Jesus, tens of thousands of people were converting Christianity daily, absolutely convinced that they had seen Him alive after His death.
With all this in mind, let’s go back to my original point. Compare the records for the real historical Christ to the mythological Zeus. If the life of Christ is the most attested to event in ancient history, Homer’s Iliad is a distant second. There are fewer than 650 manuscripts of it, the earliest of which date to the second century. Considering that Homer first compiled this epic poem in 800 BC, we are left with a 1,000 year difference between the original compilation and the earliest copies.
The teachings of Buddha (real name Siddhartha Gautama), who is alleged to have lived in the sixth century BC, aren’t found in written form until the first century AD (a 700 year difference). Muhammed is supposed to have lived from AD 570 to 632, but there is no corroborating evidence of his life from the time period and the earliest extra-Quranic biography of him wasn’t written until 767 AD.
An atheist even once asked me the difference between Christianity and Scientology, just to point out how silly this whole “religion” thing is. But the same principle applies. Remember the corroborating evidence verifying the basic outline of Christ’s ministry? In L. Ron Hubbard’s autobiographies, he claimed to be a World War II hero who sank enemy ships, was awarded medals for bravery, and used dianetics to cure himself of crippling bullet wounds and blindness. But none of this matches his naval records, which are readily available to the public, and show that he never saw action and was only ever admitted to the hospital for pinkeye and arthritis.
So to put it plainly, I accept Christ as God over others not just out of blind faith, but because that’s where the facts lead. Other religions’ cores fall apart like houses of cards when placed under historical scrutiny. But through reason and logic, I’ve concluded that there is enough evidence that He genuinely lived, performed miracles, died and rose again. Which proves He was exactly who He claimed to be. And this also means that He was telling the truth when He talked about heaven and hell. I hope you will make the same conclusion.
-Wallace, J. Warner. Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates The Claims of the Gospels. David C Cook, Colorado Springs, 2013. Pages 202-205.
-Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998. Pages 60-61, 85.
-“List of Jewish Messiah Claimants.” Wikidedia.org. Last updated January 8, 2018. Accessed January 13, 2018. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_messiah_claimants>
-“Scientology Founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Fake Purple Hearts and Bronze Star!” scientologymoneyproject.com. Accessed January 13, 2018.