My old friend Publius posted a comment (which he has apparently since deleted) on my earlier essay about why I don't believe in God, saying "the God which Jesus revealed to us is nothing like [the God of the Old Testament]." Setting aside the fact that Jesus disagreed, I thought it would be worthwhile expanding specifically on why I don't believe in Jesus.
Jesus is certainly nowhere near as odious as the God of the Old Testament, which I will refer to here as YHWH. A central pillar of mainstream Christian theology is that Jesus and YHWH are the same, modulo some weirdness having to do with the Trinity which I am not going to get into. Among Christian denominations that I am familiar with (and that is a very long list) Jehovah's Witnesses are the only ones who deny that Jesus and YHWH are the same. Frankly, I find their arguments compelling, but that is neither here nor there. The mere fact that God would have left this crucial point open to argument that is one of the reasons I don't believe that Jesus was divine.
But I'm getting way ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.
I grew up in the American South (Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia), a child of secular Jews. With the exception of one three-day period at the end of a YMCA summer camp when I was 12 (that's another story) I've been an atheist all of my life. But I've also been steeped in Southern Baptism from the age of 5 until I moved to California at 24. I have always wanted to try to understand why and how people maintain beliefs that to me are so obviously wrong. Towards that end I've been studying Christianity and the Bible for over 40 years. For four years I actually ran a Bible study, first at a local church, and then on-line when covid hit. I am by no means a Biblical scholar, I do this strictly as a hobby. But I think I know the Bible and Christianity better than the average bear.
I mention this because a lot of Christians are convinced that the only possible reason anyone could be a non-Christian is either ignorance or willful rejection of what they know in their heart of hearts to be true. I'm writing this essay in part to bear witness to the fact that these people are wrong. I am not ignorant, and I do not harbor a secret belief in God. I have come to the conclusion that there are no deities -- indeed there is nothing at all supernatural in this world -- in good faith after long and diligent study. I might be wrong. If I am, then I really would like someone to persuade me, because I don't want to be wrong. I want to know the truth. But at this point I'm pretty sure I've heard every argument there is and none of them are convincing.
Let's start with the fact that Christianity is not a unified set of beliefs. It's a real challenge to come up with even a single claim that all people who self-identify as Christian would agree on. Even the idea that Jesus is God is denied by Jehovah's Witnesses. These disagreements go all the way back to the dawn of Christianity. Even Jesus and Paul had different theologies. But once again I am getting ahead of myself.
In order to try to avoid getting lost in the theological weeds, I am going to critique a specific hypothesis, one which no Christian denomination espouses in its entirety, but which almost all would agree with at least to some extent, even the Witnesses. That hypothesis is: Jesus was a physical being who walked the earth in point of actual fact, like Mohammed or Julius Caesar, and unlike, say, Harry Potter or Albus Dumbledore. The details are debatable, but there was something extraordinary about him. He was somehow in communion with the supernatural. He performed miracles, which is to say, things happened when he was around that could not be accounted for by the laws of physics. He was executed, crucified, by the Roman authorities, but he rose from the dead, and his resurrection matters because it somehow redeemed our sins and gives us a shot at salvation in the afterlife. Or something like that. As you will see, the exact details don't really matter. What matters is that Jesus was somehow special.
The central evidence advanced to support this hypothesis is the Bible, which was written by humans, but is somehow distinguished from other human writings by again being somehow in communion with the supernatural. The Bible is "the Word of God" or "inspired by God" or has some property that sets it apart from, say, Beowulf or The Iliad. The Bible may have mythological or metaphorical elements, but it is somehow in contact with actual metaphysical truth in ways that other works of human literature are not.
The authority of the Bible is generally accepted on faith, but there is actually an argument for it which goes something like this: the Bible was written over a period of many hundreds of years by dozens of different authors. It nonetheless contains a unified message. In particular, it contains the story of how we were created by God, how we fell from grace by disobeying Him, how we are now as a result separated from Him by sin, and how Jesus came to redeem those sins and reunite us with our creator. The reason we can be confident that this is true is, among other things, the Bible contains prophecies which have since been fulfilled by verifiable events, which their authors could not possibly have known except through divine revelation. And many of those prophecies were fulfilled by the life of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels, and we can have confidence in their accuracy because the Gospels were written by four independent eye witnesses: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In addition we have written testimony from Paul of Tarsus who met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Taken at face value this argument seems rather compelling. Jesus is better attested than many historical figures whose actual existence is taken for granted, like Socrates. Like Jesus, Socrates left no writings of his own. His life is attested entirely through the writings of witnesses like his student Plato. And yet no one doubts that Socrates was real, so how could any rational person possibly deny Jesus?
The big difference between Socrates and Jesus, of course, is that Socrates didn't claim to be God. He didn't perform miracles. He didn't say that it was necessary to believe in him in order to avoid eternal torment in the afterlife. So the claims made about Jesus are rather more extraordinary, and the stakes are considerably higher. If we get the question of Socrates's existence wrong, it doesn't really matter; we're not going to suffer any serious consequences. In the end it really doesn't much matter is Socrates was real or mythological, just as it doesn't really much matter whether William Shakespeare was a real person or not. What matters are the ideas, not the man. But in Jesus's case, it is very much the man that matters. One of Jesus's core ideas is that belief in Jesus is the key to salvation. So in Jesus's case it's really important that we get it right.
So with that in mind, let's take a closer look at the Bible.
The Bible is not a single book. It is an anthology. The exact number of works collected therein depends on how you count. The Catholic Bible has 73. The original King James Bible had 80, but modern versions pare that down to 66. Whatever the number, the Bible can be divided cleanly into Old and New Testaments. The former is written mostly in Hebrew with a little bit of Aramaic thrown in, while the latter is written entirely in Greek. The former was written entirely before the birth of Jesus, while the latter was written entirely after his death. Jews, Christians and Muslims all accept the Old Testament as gospel (with an asterisk in the case of Muslims) but only Christians and Muslims accept the New Testament.
It is generally agreed even among the religious that the Bible was written by humans. Believers will of course say that these humans were inspired by God, but no one claims that the Bible was literally written by God Himself. (By way of contrast, the authorship of the Quran is attributed literally to Allah, with the Prophet Mohammed PBUH being a mere stenographer taking word-for-word dictation directly from the archangel Gabriel.) The authorship of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, is attributed by tradition to Moses, but it is almost certain that he did not write it, at least not all of it. For one thing, the Torah contains an account of Moses's death and burial in some unknown place, which seems an unlikely thing for Moses to have written himself. For another, the Torah contains accounts of things that happened long before Moses was born.
We can actually see pretty easily that the Torah is almost certainly the work of multiple authors. We need look no further than the first two chapters of Genesis, and in particular, in the abrupt transition in narrative style and content that occurs between the third and fourth verses of chapter 2. Ge2:3 wraps up one creation narrative, while Ge2:4 starts a new, radically different one written in a completely different style. God is no longer referred to simply as "God" (Elohim) but rather as "the LORD God" (YHWH Elohim). Apologists claim that the second story is just an amplification of the first, filling in some details that the first one omitted, but two creation narratives are not logically compatible with each other. In the first one, animals are created before humans, and male and female humans are created together. In the second, Adam (he doesn't even have a name in the first story) is created first, then the animals are created in an unsuccessful attempt to find suitable company for Adam, and finally Eve is created as the LORD God's final act of creation.
At best, it seems to me that God should have hired a better copy editor.
In any case, the point is that there is considerable doubt about who wrote the various parts of the Bible, and that makes it harder to assess the truth of the claim that the Bible is the Word of God. What does that claim even mean? It clearly cannot mean that God literally wrote the Bible. At best, it means that God somehow guided the process of the Bible's creation over many centuries to make it credible. But the details of that process have been lost in the mists of time. We have no idea who wrote most of the Bible. We have no idea who curated the works that comprise it. We have no way to assess the credibility and qualifications of the people who did this work because for the most part we have no idea who they were.
This is a serious problem because even if God were real and even if he guided the production of the Bible, how can we be confident that some mistakes didn't sneak in somewhere along the line? Consider, for example, Leviticus 20:13 and Numbers 15:32-35. These passages say (or at least strongly imply) that homosexuality and working on the Sabbath should both be capital crimes. Is that really the Will of God, or is it perhaps something that some unknown author living in a very different time and culture sincerely believed to be the Will of God, even though author was actually mistaken? How can we possibly know without the ability to trace these ideas back to their roots?
The New Testament has many of the same problems. It is more recent and so we know a lot more about its authorship than we do about the Old Testament, but there are still only 13 (out of 27) books whose author is named in the work. All of those authorship claims are the same: the apostle Paul. There is some dispute over whether some of Paul's works are forgeries, but that is neither here nor there. What matters is that all of the rest of the New Testament is anonymous. The Gospels in particular, despite being attributed by tradition to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are actually anonymous works. And it's actually pretty clear that whoever wrote them, it was not the traditionally attributed authors. The Gospels of Matthew and John, for example, refers to to their respective putative authors in the third person, which would be a little bit weird if Matthew and John were the authors.
Christians commonly argue that the Gospels are reliable because they are four independent eyewitness accounts of the events they recount, but this is not true. They are neither independent nor eyewitness accounts. Matthew and Luke clearly copied from Mark, and we have no idea whether or not they are eyewitness accounts because we have no idea who wrote them. In fact, Luke specifically denies being an eyewitness, saying instead that he is writing "a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us" and not, say, "those things which I beheld while sojourning in Judea." In this regard I am happy to take the author of Luke at his word and accept that the Gospel of Luke is an accurate record of those things which were "most surely believed among his peers." That says absolutely nothing about whether or not those things are actually true.
The gospels are also not internally consistent. Matthew and Luke, for example, present radically different genealogies tracing Jesus's descent from David. I've heard apologists explain this by saying that they were skipping generations, but Matthew denies this, specifically citing the number of generations between three key events in his timeline so you can easily see that there cannot be any unaccounted-for gaps. There are similar irreconcilable inconsistencies in the various accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb.
Apart from logical inconsistencies, there are also a lot of events described there that just seem mighty hinky to me. For example, Matthew (27:50-53) says:
"Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many."
There are three things that strike me as odd about this passage. First, it is recorded nowhere except Matthew. You would think that if zombies really walked the streets of Jerusalem and "appeared unto many" that someone besides the author of Matthew would have taken the trouble to write it down. Second, Matthew writes that the bodies of the saints came out of the graves after "his (presumably Jesus's) resurrection", but at this point in the narrative Jesus had not yet been resurrected. That's not going to happen for another three (or two depending on how you count) days.
But the third peculiarity dwarfs the other two. Jesus's resurrection is supposed to be the deal-closer, the one miracle that proves definitively that he was in fact (the son of) God. But if we take Matthew at his word, Jesus's resurrection was not a singular event at all! Jerusalem was already lousy with formerly dead bodies walking around! So what exactly is it that makes Jesus's resurrection special? The whole thing just makes no sense to me on both historical and theological grounds.
Now, none of this proves anything. One of the things I've learned over the years is that apologists have answers for everything. But the overriding question for me has always been: why are apologetics even necessary? If there is a coherent truth behind the story of Jesus, why did God not see to it that it got written down in a way that made it self-evident?
Of course, apologists have answers for everything, and so they have an answer for that too, and the answer (at least the one given by my Southern Baptist peers in my youth) is that God specifically does not want there to be definitive proof of His existence. He wants you to have faith, to accept Him specifically without proof, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. Jesus makes this quite explicit in John 20:29:
Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
According to Jesus, credulity is a virtue (which, BTW, is at odds with what YHWH said in Deuteronomy 18:21-22). This idea is deeply ingrained in our society. Being a "person of faith" is generally considered a good thing.
But there is a fundamental problem with faith: if you're going to have faith, you still have to somehow decide what to have faith in. If you're going to have faith in a deity you still need to decide which deity. If you're going to have faith in Jesus you have to decide which of the many different versions of Jesus you're going to follow. And too you will ultimately have to decide how to translate your faith into action, into policy, at least for yourself, if not for others. You need to decide, for example, whether it is a sin to be a homosexual or have an abortion or work on the sabbath or eat shellfish.
Faith is not a virtue. It is an invitation to chaos.
For me, the arguments above are sufficient to at least cast reasonable doubt on Jesus's divinity. But the clincher is what happens when you arrange the books of the New Testament in the order in which they were written. The traditional ordering of the NT is not chronological. Paul's writings are the earliest, and they were written 20-30 years after Jesus's death. (Not a single word was written about Jesus while he was alive.) Then comes the gospel of Mark, then Matthew, Luke and Acts, and finally the gospel of John. (I'm going to set aside Revelation and the non-Pauline epistles here -- things are complicated enough already.) I'm not going to get into the weeds of how scholars figured this out, but it's pretty obvious that Mark must have been written before Matthew and Luke because the latter contain passages copied from Mark, sometimes word-for-word. But the historical order is not at all controversial. Everyone agrees on this.
When you read the NT in chronological order, a very clear pattern emerges. The earliest writings, Paul's, contain no mention at all of any details about Jesus's life. There is nothing about Jesus being born in Bethlehem or living in Nazareth, no mention of Jesus performing miracles or even having a ministry. In fact, Paul never once quotes anything Jesus said while he was alive! Just about the only historical detail given by Paul is Jesus's trial before Pilate, and even that is in a book whose authorship is disputed and is probably a forgery.
It is not until Mark, written several decades after Jesus died, that you get the first narrative of Jesus's life, but even here many familiar details are missing. There is no account of the nativity, no Bethlehem, no Annunciation. The character of Jesus is very different from what we will see later in John. Jesus is very human, full of existential angst and self-doubt. He never claims to be God, and he is very clearly not the same as God the Father (14:36, 15:34). Even his followers never say that he is God, only that he is the son of God.
In Matthew and Luke you get the first mention of Bethlehem and the first genealogies that purport to show that Jesus was descended from David. This is significant because these are supposed to show the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. But here again we have a problem trying to reconcile these claims with what is known about history. Luke says that Joseph and Mary traveled from their home in Nazareth to their birthplace in Bethlehem in order to be taxed, and he says that this happened "when Cyrenius was governor of Syria". Cyrenius (or Quirinius in Latin) is well documented, and his census is a real historical event.
The problem is that Matthew says that Jesus was born "in the days of Herod the king". And this is not just an offhand reference, Herod plays a significant role in the narrative. Having heard of Jesus's birth and the prophecy that he would become king of the Jews, Herod orders the killing of all newborns, which forces Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt in order to save the baby Jesus.
The problem is that Herod died in 4CE, two years before the census of Quirinius. It is simply not possible for both stories to be true.
My point here is not that there is a contradiction in the Gospels; Biblical contradictions are a dime a dozen and apologists have answers to all of them. The point is that these stories appear late, almost 50 years after Jesus died. Before that, there is no mention of any of these details in any Christian writings.
This trend of getting more and more embellishments to the story as time goes by continues in the last gospel to be written, the one traditionally attributed to John. Here we have a Jesus who is radically different in character than what we find in the synoptics. All of the self-doubt and existential angst is gone. John's Jesus is self-assured and claims unambiguously to be God ("I and my Father are one.") There is no mention of "take this cup away from me" or "not my will, but yours be done" or "Father, why have you forsaken me?" There is also a whole collection of new miracles which appear nowhere else, including the raising of Lazarus which, again, if that had actually happened you'd think someone would have taken note and written it down sooner (to say nothing of the fact that it makes Jesus's resurrection a lot less noteworthy).
The point is that when you put the New Testament in chronological order you can clearly see a myth developing right before your eyes. Matthew and Luke put Jesus in Bethlehem not because they had any evidence that he was actually born there (because he almost certainly wasn't born there) but rather because they believed Jesus was the messiah and so he had to have been born there because (they believed) that's where the OT said the messiah would be born. (There are other places in Matthew where he fills in details like this in order to fulfill what he thinks the OT prophesies but gets it wrong, sometimes to truly comical effect.)
Again, I have to stress that none of this is a slam-dunk. Apologists have been aware of these problems quite literally for two thousand years and, as I've taken pains to point out, they have answers for everything. Obviously I don't find their answers compelling; if I did I'd be a Christian. But they do have them.
My claim is not that my arguments here are correct, only that they are defensible. But that's enough to make my point, which is simply that I have not arrived at my conclusions capriciously. I have reached them in good faith after some fairly diligent study and careful consideration of the counter-arguments. I have not, as some Christians accuse atheists of, "rejected God because I want to sin" or some such nonsense. I've simply looked at the evidence and the arguments and found them not compelling. Far more likely, it seems to me, is that the Bible is (mostly) mythology.