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Michael Martin Xtianity Absurd

Is Christianity Absurd?

Michael Martin


For the purpose of my argument I will understand Christianity to mean the religious view that is characterized by doctrines such as Salvation through Christ, Heaven, the Atonement, the ethical views of Jesus, and belief in God.[1] So understood is Christianity absurd? This question is seldom asked, let alone answered.[2] I will argue that a plausible case can be made for the claim that Christianity is absurd in an important sense of that term. In what follows I will not so much present new arguments as deploy standard atheistic ones in new ways.

The Meaning of Absurd

What does it mean to suppose that something is absurd? Perhaps this expression has only emotive meaning. Perhaps it is like saying “Yuk!” But the term “absurd” does have cognitive meaning. According to The American Heritage Dictionary the primary meaning of the term “absurd” is “ridiculously incongruous or unreasonable.” So in this dictionary sense, to say that something is absurd is to say that it is ridiculously incongruous and unreasonable. Let us call this the incongruity sense of the absurd. Now it might also be suggested that to say that something is absurd it simply to say that it is meaningless. No doubt “absurd” is used in this sense when, for example, religious apologists speak of the absurdity of human existence without God. Let us call this the meaningless sense of absurdity. There are interesting logical connections between these two senses that I cannot explore here.[3] But in any case, my concern in this paper will be with the incongruity sense of absurd and not the meaningless sense. It follows that my arguments will not pertain to the claim made by Christian apologists that human existence without God is absurd in the meaningless sense. Nevertheless, my argument will still have relevance. It would be fair to say that if Christian apologists were presented with the claim that Christianity is absurd in the incongruity sense, they would deny it. So I will be defending a view that clashes with what Christians would maintain.

The Absurdity of Christianity

Is Christianity absurd in the dictionary sense of being ridiculously incongruous and unreasonable? It seems to me that the answer is “yes.” Given standard criticisms of Christianity and certain plausible interpretations of it, Christianity is filled with ridiculous incongruities and unreasonable beliefs and practices. I will consider here five aspects of Christianity where absurdity seems to arise: The Path of Salvation, Heaven, Christian Ethics, The Atonement, and God. The incongruity of which I speak involves a conflict between the importance or centrality of these notions to Christianity and their problematic status. In other words, it is incongruous that these notions should be so problematic and yet be so important to Christian thought. This incongruity can take several different forms. One sort involves a conflict between the importance of Salvation and the unclarity or ambiguity of that doctrine. Another concerns the centrality of the Atonement and the lack of a plausible theory of the Atonement. Yet another incongruity is the great significance of Heaven and the conceptual and moral problems of the doctrine. Another sort involves a conflict between the importance of Christian ethics to Christianity and the questionable morality of Jesus. Still another sort concerns the conflict between the centrality of God in the Christian scheme and the incoherence of the concept of God.

1. The Path of Salvation

There is no consistent Christian account of how humans are supposed to be saved, although this is of the utmost practical urgency. It is absurd that the aim of Christianity is human salvation and yet Christian doctrine does not make clear how this is achieved. Indeed, there are conflicting ideas of salvation suggested by the creeds, the gospels and Paul’s letters.[4] For example, one view of salvation presented in the Synoptic Gospels is that a person is saved by following a moral code.[5] A second view, one maintained by Paul, John, and the Creeds, is that a person is saved by having faith in Jesus. In other words, the first path to salvation seems to be through works, whereas the second path to salvation is by faith alone.

The second route is the one most commonly associated with Christianity. However, it is not clear just what it involves besides belief. Even when one concentrates only on the cognitive dimension of faith there are unclarities. The Creeds seem to demand the kind of belief that defines orthodox Christianity: namely, everything from the Virgin Birth to the Second Coming, from the Resurrection to the Incarnation. But John only seems to demand belief in the incarnation and Paul only seems to demand belief in the resurrection. Neither Paul nor John demands belief in the Virgin Birth or in the Trinity but the Creeds do.

So Christians who read the New Testament and the Creeds of Christianity carefully should be utterly confused for they are presented with conflicting doctrines. They will not know whether one is saved by works or by faith and, if by faith, by faith in what.

Notice that my argument does not presuppose the falsehood of Christianity. Even if Christianity were true, Christianity would be absurd since the goal is salvation yet in Christian doctrine there is no clear and consistent way to achieve it. There is in fact an incongruity between Christianity’s inconsistent views of salvation and the central place of salvation in Christianity. It is as if Christianity says, “Above all seek salvation! But there is no clear or consistent way to do it!”

Could a Christian avoid this conclusion? Of course, he or she could try to interpret the New Testament so that these conflicting doctrines of salvation are harmonized or so that one of them is discounted. But such interpretations cannot be arbitrary. Absurdity should not be avoided by arbitrariness. For example, a Christian who read an earlier draft of this paper said that he found my view that the New Testament offers conflicting advice regarding salvation strained. The traditional message, he said, is that one is saved by trusting God as revealed through Jesus Christ. However, he neither cited New Testament passages to support his interpretation nor made any attempt to explain away the apparently conflicting doctrines I have cited. To be sure, one might be able to find passages that support the commentator’s interpretation. But there are other passages that support conflicting interpretations. It is well known that there is a long-standing conflict between Catholics who stress salvation by works and Protestants who advocate salvation by faith. Indeed, there is a vast amount of scholarly literature devoted to trying to understand the conflict.[6] This traditional controversy and the scholarly response certainly suggest that my thesis that the Bible offers conflicting advice is hardly strained.

Another possible way of trying to avoid the problem is to maintain that since the path of salvation is unclearly specified in the Bible one should cover both bets by having faith in Jesus and also doing good works. Given the mysterious nature of God, whether this is a good prudential suggestion is unclear. After all, God may not want us to follow both paths at once. But in any case it does not avoid the main problem. It is absurd that Christians should have to use this strategy in order to avoid the problem. If following both paths simultaneously is what God wants, why is this not clearly specified? Surely the path of salvation should be stated in a way that is easy to understand.

2. The Concept of Heaven

Despite the fact that going to Heaven is the primary goal of Christianity and is held up as an end of infinite desirability, the idea of Heaven is deeply problematic both conceptually and ethically.[7] Again this strikes me as absurd. And again it should be noted that I am not assuming the falsehood of Christianity. Even if the major doctrines of Christianity were true, it is incongruous and unreasonable that Heaven has a central place in the Christian scheme of things and yet its nature is so problematic.

a. Conceptual Difficulties

First there are conceptual difficulties with Heaven. To begin with the notion of human existence in Heaven–be it disembodied or embodied–is conceptually unintelligible. In the most common theory of our heavenly existence the immaterial soul of a human being–not the body–goes to Heaven shortly after his or her death. In this interpretation Heaven is considered “a place” although not in time and space. In a second theory–one that many scholars believe is the original Christian view–Heaven does not exist now but will exist in the future with the Second Coming. With the Second Coming people’s bodies will be resurrected in an altered form but will be rewarded in the space in which we now live.

With respect to the first theory it is difficult enough to imagine even in a rough way what disembodied existence would be like in time and space. How would a soul move from place to place? How would it recognize other souls? What would disembodied souls do all day long since presumably there would be no need to sleep? The problem becomes insuperable when it is combined with the idea that Heaven is outside of space and time. All of our mental concepts–for instance, thinking, willing, and desiring–are temporal notions that take time to perform and occur at some particular time. Nontemporal thinking and desiring are inconceivable. Yet on this variant, souls think and desire nontemporally.

Consider the theory that Heaven does not exist now, but will exist in the future when people’s bodies are resurrected in an altered form in space, as we know it. Here we do not have those problems associated with disembodied souls and nonphysical space for Heaven is in our physical space. But still there are difficulties. Bodies that are buried decay and the atoms that constitute them become dispersed. Indeed, some of these atoms might eventually become parts of bodies of people who are now living. And much the same thing is true of bodies that are cremated. In view of problems like these theistic philosophers such as Peter Van Inwagen have argued that not even an all-powerful God can resurrect a body that is completely decayed. But since human bodies do decay this is a problem.

Van Inwagen has suggested a solution to this problem so bizarre that, were it not for his status within the field, the idea would not warrant serious comment. He has suggested that, despite appearances to the contrary, human bodies do not decay. Rather, God preserves our bodies–perhaps at the moment of death–and substitutes replicas that either rot or are cremated.[8] Unfortunately, this proposal introduces new problems. Why should one suppose that the rotting or cremated bodies are replicas and not the bodies themselves? Further, where are the preserved bodies stored? If it is held that they are stored on some distant planet or in a different space from ours, problems immediately arise. The latter possibility introduces the problem of how there could be a space different from ours. The former suggestion leaves open the possibility of future empirical verification, in that space exploration could in principle find the planet where God stores the preserved bodies.[9]

Independent of its intrinsic bizarreness and problematic implications there is something puzzling about Van Inwagen’s suggestion. Why should God go to such lengths to make it appear that people pass into complete nothingness? Van Inwagen suggests that if bodies did not rot or mysteriously disappear after death, this would be sure evidence of a power beyond Nature. He says that although God wants us to believe in Him, He does not do all He can do to provide us with undeniable evidence. Van Inwagen concludes by saying, “perhaps it is not hard to think of good reasons for such a policy.”[10]

Perhaps it is harder than Van Inwagen supposes. Theodore Drange has presented powerful arguments to show that the usual arguments given for God’s not providing us with powerful evidence for His existence are very weak.[11] For example, one cannot argue that being presented with powerful evidence interferes with one’s free will since free choice is compatible with having powerful evidence. In any case, if it were found that bodies did not rot or disappear after death, this would hardly be undeniable evidence for the theistic God since this state of affairs is compatible with many nontheistic interpretations, for example, an evil demon trying to confound us.

b. Moral difficulties

Heaven seems unfair no matter how one views it. According to the standard view of Heaven, some people are sent there as a reward for something they do in their earthly existence and some people are not. On a second view Heaven is a gift of God that is completely unmerited–some people receive it and some do not. On a third universalistic view everyone eventually goes to Heaven.

Consider the unmerited gift view first. A father who bestowed unmerited gifts on some of his children and not on others would be considered unjust and arbitrary. Surely much the same thing could be said about God if He were to act in a similar way. But suppose we accept the standard view that going to Heaven is based on merit. It still seems unfair. Suppose that Heaven is a reward for belief, for example in Jesus as the Savior. Millions of people through no fault of their own have never heard of Jesus or at least have not been exposed to Scripture. These people’s failure to believe is hardly grounds for not going to Heaven.

Moreover, even if people have been exposed and have failed to believe, why should they be punished by not being rewarded? Many nonbelievers reject the Gospel message for the good reason that the evidence shows the improbability of many of the major doctrines of Christianity: the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, and the Incarnation.[12] Even if these doctrines are true and not improbable in the light of the evidence, rational people surely can fail to be impressed by the evidence. It would be going beyond what the evidence dictates–if not being in conflict with the evidence–to accept Jesus as the Son of God. Furthermore, even if nonbelievers have misevaluated the evidence and it does indeed provide solid grounds for belief, many nonbelievers sincerely believe that evidence is lacking. Why would a good God want to withhold the joy of Heaven to a sincere nonbeliever who might lack sufficient insight, knowledge, or analytical skills to appraise the evidence correctly?

Now apologists such as William Lane Craig would argue that the situation I describe could never obtain in reality. Nonbelief is not basically an intellectual problem but a willful sinful rejection of the Holy Spirit. However, as I have argued elsewhere, Craig’s appeal to the Holy Spirit is problematic.[13] One fundamental problem with Craig’s theory is that he assumes that not only all Christians but also all people have experienced the Holy Spirit. But there is no reason to think that even all professed Christians have experienced the Holy Spirit, let alone that all non-Christians have done so.

Suppose the reward of Heaven is based not on belief but on moral behavior. This is still unfair. Millions of people have not been exposed to the moral teachings of the Bible. That they do not live according to Biblical standards is not their fault. Moreover, even those who have been exposed to the Bible may find its moral message unacceptable on moral grounds. God as portrayed in the Old Testament is often cruel and arbitrary and in the New Testament even Jesus is pictured as having a flawed moral character.[14] Moreover, even for those who accept the Bible the question is what behavior should be rewarded. What the Bible teaches concerning morality is subject to various conflicting interpretations. But how in all fairness can Heaven be a reward for following the correct moral standard of Scripture since what this represents is unclear?

Now it might be argued that people who have never been exposed to the Bible’s specific ethical message would still be saved if they followed the general principles of the natural moral law, which all persons know because God’s Holy Sprint imprints this knowledge on everyone’s conscience. However, this retort is problematic. For one thing, there seems to be no reason to suppose that the Holy Spirit does imprint natural moral law on everyone’s conscience. Whether there are universally held moral principles is uncertain. But even if there are, it is not clear how it could be shown that the Holy Spirit is responsible. In addition, given this generous doctrine of salvation it is not clear why the Incarnation was even necessary or desirable.[15]

On the other hand, advocating universalism also has its problems. What is the point of Heaven if everyone goes there eventually? What is the meaning of earthly existence with its suffering and trials and tribulations? Although in this case one can perhaps no longer complain of unfairness[16] one can complain of the meaningless of the exercise. Human existence becomes apparently absurd and a deep mystery. Why do we have an earthly life at all? Why not start life in a heavenly state?

One reader of an earlier draft of this paper objected that the unfairness or the pointlessness of the above accounts of Heaven do not show that Christianity is absurd in the incongruity sense since people still have a desire for eternal life even if it is unfair or pointless. But the incongruity I have in mind does not turn on any conflict with the desire for eternal life. Heaven, whatever else it is, purports to have ethical implications that in fact seem to be lacking on closer examination. Heaven is supposed to give a moral point to life, but it does not.

3. Christian Ethics

Another incongruity in Christianity is that the theory of Christian ethics to be found in the New Testament seems irrelevant or indefensible to many morally sensitive people including many contemporary Christians. Yet this theory is supposed to be the basis of the Christian morality. Jesus’ otherworldliness, harshness, demands for blind obedience, and vindictiveness are not only morally unacceptable but conflict with the claim that he is morally perfect.[17] Moreover, his tacit approval of slavery makes him an inappropriate ethical model.

Once again it is important to note that my thesis does not presuppose that Christianity is false. Even if Christianity were true, there would be an incongruity between Christians holding up Jesus as the moral ideal and his problematic ethical views. Christians believe that Jesus is their moral ideal and yet Jesus has serious moral flaws that conflict with this ideal.

Let us consider the case of slavery in more detail. Although this practice was common in Jesus’ own world, there is no evidence that he criticized it. As Morton Smith has noted:

There were innumerable slaves of the emperor and of the Roman State; the Jerusalem Temple owned slaves; the High Priest owned slaves (one of them lost an ear in Jesus’ arrest); all of the rich and almost all of the middle class owned slaves. So far as we are told, Jesus never attacked this practice. He took the state of affairs for granted and shaped his parables accordingly. As Jesus presents things, the main problem for the slaves is not to get free, but to win their master’s praise. There seem to have been slave revolts in Palestine and Jordan in Jesus’ youth (Josephus, Bellum, 2:55-65); a miracle-working leader of such a revolt would have attracted a large following. If Jesus had denounced slavery or promised liberation, we should almost certainly have heard of his doing it. We hear nothing, so the most likely supposition is that he said nothing.[18]

Smith’s judgment is confirmed by the behavior of Jesus’ disciples. If Jesus was opposed to slavery, it is likely that his earlier followers would have followed his teachings on the subject. However, Paul (1Cor. 7: 21, 24) and other early Christian writers commanded Christians to continue the practice of slavery.[19] Surely, it is absurd for someone who tacitly approved of slavery to represent the Christian moral ideal.

Is it possible to try to answer this charge of absurdity? One way is to reinterpret those parts of Christian ethics that Christians find disagreeable, for example, to argue that Jesus did not tacitly approval of slavery. But although such reinterpretations must not be arbitrary and problematic, they often are. For example, it has been argued by a Christian reader of an earlier draft of this paper that if Jesus had taught that slavery was wrong, he would have been dismissed and that, historically, liberating slaves was “not in the cards.” This strikes me as a rationalization. We are to believe that he preached turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, and not looking at women with lust in one’s eyes. Yet these views seem just as out of keeping with the historical possibilities as does freeing the slaves. Moreover, some people in the Ancient World did express their opposition.[20] Another way for Christians to avoid incongruity would be to profess approval of Jesus’ behavior despite its manifest problems. But in fact when push comes to shove Christians don’t. Thus, for example, contemporary Christians are opposed to slavery.

However, despite the evidence let us suppose Jesus was opposed to slavery and that his and his disciples’ condemnation was omitted from the New Testament record. This would pose a new absurdity for Christianity: Jesus did indeed oppose slavery but the opposite seems to be suggested by the New Testament record. Thus, Christians who oppose slavery would be following Jesus but have no Biblical justification for doing so. Moreover, if God really did oppose slavery and Jesus preached against it, why would God allow that teaching to go unmentioned in the New Testament? Surely, this poses another absurdity. The Bible fails to mention Jesus’ opposition to one of the most heinous practices in the history of the human race and yet Jesus is supposed to be our moral ideal.

Even if we waive these problems and concentrate on what is considered by many to be the essence of Jesus’ teachings, namely, the Love Your Neighbor Commandment, there are problems. The unclarity of the commandment allows it to be interpreted in different ways some of which have unacceptable implications while others are so unclear that it is impossible to discern what the commandment entails. But it is absurd that the ethical commandment at the heart of Christianity should have these problems.[21]

4. The Atonement

Still another incongruity in Christianity is that there is no plausible theory of the Atonement; that is, of why Jesus became incarnated, died on the Cross and was resurrected.[22] Yet without this the Christian worldview makes no sense and the incarnation, death, and resurrection are pointless.

All of the historically important theories of the Atonement have serious problems. In particular, they either fail to explain why God sacrificed his son for the salvation of sinners or else they make the sacrifice seem arbitrary and pointless. Thus, they do not provide an adequate explanation of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Note again that I am not assuming that Christianity is false. My point simply is that there is an incongruity between the lack of a plausible theory of the Atonement and the need of such a theory to make sense of Christianity. To illustrate it I will consider the Satisfaction Theory of St. Anselm.

Although the Satisfaction Theory was anticipated to some extent by earlier thinkers, Anselm developed it in an explicit and sophisticated way in the 11th Century.[23] He argued that God must save humanity via the incarnation and death of Jesus. To offer God his due, according Anselm, is to follow his will. However, he argued that when God’s creatures sin this is precisely what they do not do. The sins of God’s creatures insult God and detract from his honor. There is, then, an obligation to restore God’s honor and to undo the insult. This is satisfaction. However, only the death of the God-Man Jesus can give proper satisfaction. Only the God-Man is able, by his divinity, to offer something that is worthy of God and, by his humanity, to represent humankind. A mere human would be unable to give the proper satisfaction since this latter must be in proportion to the amount of sin and the amount of sin is infinite.[24] Furthermore, the death of the God-Man is not unjust since the Son of God died completely voluntarily in order to restore God’s honor. Those who accept Jesus’ sacrifice are saved.

This theory makes assumptions that are questionable. Let me just mention four:

First, it is not clear why, if the wrong inflicted on God by humanity is infinite, it could not be properly satisfied by simply inflicting punishment on sinners for eternity. The incarnation would not be necessary.

Second, the death of Jesus, even though voluntary, seems unjust. Justice surely demands that at the very least the guilty party provide as much of the satisfaction as he or she can. Furthermore, a perfectly good person would not permit a completely innocent person to provide satisfaction on a voluntary basis even if the guilty party could not pay anything. Indeed, the very idea of God’s pride being so wounded and demanding such satisfaction that the voluntary sacrifice of his innocent son is required, assumes a view of God’s moral nature that many modern readers would reject.

Third, it is not clear on this theory why the death of the God-Man is necessary for satisfaction of an infinite wrong against God’s honor. Why would not some other punishment suffice? If God’s honor is infinitely wounded by human sin, why could it not be appeased by the eternal punishment of the God-Man, Jesus? Why the death penalty? It would seem much worse to punish Jesus for eternity than to kill him after only relatively little suffering. Even if one argues that death has a harshness that no punishment can match, it is important to recall that Jesus was dead for only a short time. It would have been a much harsher death punishment if Jesus had remained unresurrected.

Finally, it is unclear why those who accept Jesus’ sacrifice are saved. Even supposing that Jesus’ sacrifice provides satisfaction for the past damage done to God’s honor, why should faith in Jesus now save anyone? And why should believers but not nonbelievers be rewarded?

Other theories such as the Penal Theory, the Government Theory, the Moral Theory, the Christus Victor Theory, and the Mystic Theory are also extremely implausible.[25]

5. The Concept of God

The final incongruity I will mention here is that although God is central to the Christians scheme, the concept of the Christian God is incoherent. Note that I am not just saying that belief in God is false. Rather, there is an incongruity in basing one’s religion on a belief in God and having this idea be incoherent. What could be more absurd than that the central concept of a religion is inconsistent? First of all, some of the properties attributed to God in the Bible are inconsistent.[26] In some places God is described as merciful[27] and in other places as lacking mercy;[28] in some places as a being who repents and changes His mind,[29] in other places as a being who never repents and changes His mind;[30] in some places as a being who deceives and causes confusion and evil,[31] and in other places as a being who never does;[32] in some places as someone who punishes children for their parents’ wrong doing[33] and in other places as one who never does.[34]

Second, the attributes specified in philosophical accounts of God are either in conflict with one another or are internally inconsistent. In my Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, I spend thirty pages analyzing in detail the incoherencies connected with the concepts of omniscience, omnipotence, and divine freedom. Here I only have time to outline my arguments connected with omniscience.

To say that God is omniscient is to say that God is all-knowing. To say that God is all-knowing in turn entails that He has all of the knowledge that there is. Now philosophers have distinguished three different kinds of knowledge: propositional, procedural and knowledge by acquaintance. Briefly, propositional or factual knowledge is knowledge that something is the case and is analyzable as true belief of a certain kind. In contrast, procedural knowledge or knowledge how is a type of skill and is not reducible to propositional knowledge.[35] Finally, knowledge by acquaintance is direct acquaintance with some object, person or phenomenon.[36] For example, for me to say that I know Mr. Jones implies that I have more than simply detailed propositional knowledge about Mr. Jones; that I have a direct acquaintance of Mr. Jones. Similarly, to say that I know poverty implies that, beside detailed propositional knowledge of poverty, I have some direct experience of it.

To say that God is all-knowing, then, is to say that God has all knowledge where this includes propositional, procedural and knowledge by acquaintance. The implications of this account for the incoherence of the concept of God have not usually been noticed. If God is omniscient, then God must have all knowledge including knowledge of how to swim. Yet this conflicts with His disembodiness for only a being with a body can have knowledge how to swim in the procedural sense; that is, can actually have the skill of swimming. Since by definition God does not have a body, God’s attribute of being disembodied and His attribute of being omniscient are in conflict. Thus, since God has conflicting properties the concept of God is incoherent.[37]

One might object to my argument on two grounds. First, one might argue that God could become incarnate and gain knowledge how while He was in this state. Yes, but He would lack this knowledge before He became incarnate. However, God is supposed to be all-knowing eternally. Secondly, one might claim that God could learn how to swim by thinking about it. But this objection is based on a confusion between two types of knowing how. Of course, God can know how to swim in the sense that He would know that to swim one must move one’s arms and legs in such and such a way, take a breath in such and such manner and so on. But this is not relevant to the skill sense of knowing how which consists of actually being able to swim; this is, having the physical skill. Since God lacks a body unless He is incarnate He could not have the skill sense of knowing how to swim.

The property of being all-knowing also conflicts with the moral attributes usually attributed to God. For if God is omniscient, He has knowledge by acquaintance of all aspects of lust and envy. Now one aspect of lust is the feeling of lust and one aspect of envy is the feeling of envy. However, part of the concept of God is that He is morally perfect and being morally perfect excludes these feelings. Consequently, the concept of God is incoherent.

In addition, God’s omniscience conflicts with God’s omnipotence. Since God is omnipotent He cannot experience fear, frustration, and despair.[38] In order to have these experiences one must believe that one is limited in power, but since God is all-knowing and all-powerful, He knows that He is not limited in power. Consequently, He cannot have complete knowledge by acquaintance of all aspects of fear, frustration and despair. On the other hand, since God is omniscient He must have this knowledge. Again the concept of God is shown to be incoherent. Yet what could be more absurd? The concept central to the Christian is God and yet this concept is incoherent.

Can my arguments be answered? Of course, one could give a different interpretation of God or of the Old Testament. In so doing one would attempt to show that the concept of God is not incoherent. But such interpretations must not be arbitrary or otherwise problematic. With respect to conflicting Biblical passages a Christian who read an earlier draft of this paper criticized my method of interpretation as neglecting the central themes and concentrating on what he called “legalistic” details. Unfortunately, he did not venture an opinion on how these details are to be reconciled or how one determines the central themes.

This same reader also tried to reconcile the conflict between God’s omniscience and his other attributes by denying that God is all-knowing. In particular, this reader denied that God has complete knowledge how and knowledge by acquaintance. But this supposition has the paradoxical implications that humans have knowledge that God lacks. To put it in another way, it implies that an infinite being lacks knowledge that finite beings have. One absurdity is substituted for another.


The Christian doctrines of Salvation, Heaven, Ethics, The Atonement, and God[39] are of central importance to Christianity and yet these doctrines are problematic. But this is absurd in terms of the ordinary dictionary definition of “absurd.”[40] This is not of course the end of the story for Christians can reject some of the interpretations my arguments turn on. Whether they can give alternative interpretations that are not arbitrary or paradoxical is another matter.


[1] Cf. Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity, (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991), Introduction.

[2] An earlier, shorter, and greatly modified version of this paper appeared in The American Rationalist, May/June 2000, pp. 3-6, with the title “The Absurdity of the Christian Life.”

[3] If something is absurd in the incongruity sense, then is it absurd in the meaningless sense? If something is absurd in meaningless sense, is it absurd in the incongruity sense?

[4] See The Case Against Christianity, Chapter 7.

[5] I am aware of the subtle scholarship of members of the Jesus Seminar that tries to determine what Jesus really said. [See, for example, Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Harper, SanFranciso, 1997).] However, the conclusion (which I accept) that Jesus did not say many of the things he is reported to have said would not affect my main point in this paper in any important way. Almost all Christians seem to believe at least by implication that Jesus did say these things. For example, most Christians profess to believe what Jesus is reported to have said in the Synoptic Gospels. But there he is reported to have said that salvation could be achieved by following a moral code. Yet they also profess to believe Paul and John. But they said that salvation is achieved only through faith. So do the Creeds of Christianity which most Christians also believe. My thesis is concerned with exposing an incongruity in common Christian belief–not what scholars may decide what Christians should believe in the light of historical scholarship.

As I understand the findings of the Jesus Seminar, the view that Jesus taught salvation by following a moral code that involves following the commandments and not being rich has moderate (Matt.19: 21-24, Luke 13:24, 18:18-25) to weak support (Matt.7: 13-14, 19:17). In terms of the Seminar’s color-coding system these passages are either pink (Jesus probably said this) or gray (he did not say this but the ideas are close to his own). However, the members of the seminar seem to regard the view that Jesus taught salvation only by faith as very dubious. Thus, they reject John 14: 1-14 as representing what Jesus said although this passage is used to support the salvation by faith doctrine. (See The Five Gospels, pp. 450-1.) But most Christians do not know the opinions of the Jesus Seminar and probably would not accept them even if they did.

However, if we bring in the findings of the Jesus Seminar this seems to generate another incoherence: Many Christians believe that salvation is by faith only, but the best scholarship does not support that this is what Jesus taught. It is surely absurd that Jesus did not teach one of the most widely held Christian doctrines of salvation.

[6] I owe this point to Robert Price in personal correspondence.

[7] See Michael Martin, “Problems With Heaven,” July 22, 1997.

[8] Peter Van Inwagen, “The Possibility of Resurrection,” Philosophy of Religion, ed. Louis Pojman (Wadsworth Pub. 1994), pp. 389-92.

[9] However, given the vastness of space failure to find the location of such a planet would not tend to disconfirm its existence. Technically the hypothesis “There is a planet where God preserves bodies of human being who die on Earth” is an unrestricted existential statement and is not falsifiable by observational evidence.

[10] Ibid., p. 392.

[11] See, Theodore Drange, “The Argument From Nonbelief,” Religious Studies, 29, 1993, pp. 417-432, and “The Arguments From Evil and Nonbelief,” 1996.

[12] See The Case Against Christianity.

[13] Michael Martin, “Craig’s Holy Spirit Epistemology,” April 15, 1998.

[14] See The Case Against Christianity, Chapter 6. Here and elsewhere in this paper I assume that Jesus existed. Although I have argued against his existence in The Case Against Christianity (Chapter 2) I said (p. 67) I would not rely on my arguments against his existence in the rest of the book since they are too controversial. Moreover, I have not relied on them since that time in my writings on Christianity. Consequently, it would be a serious misunderstanding to suppose that I am being inconsistent in assuming the existence of Jesus in this paper. For the purposes of this paper I assume what the typical Christian supposes (that Jesus existed) and attempt to show the incongruities involved in this.

My arguments are hypothetical in a different way as well. I assume we have a good idea of Jesus’ ethical views and behavior from what is said in the Synoptic Gospels. However, I argued in The Case Against Christianity (Chapter 6, p. 163) that this is assumption is dubious. As I pointed out there most Christians ignore this problem and take the Synoptic Gospels as the basis for Christian ethics. In The Case Against Christianity (Chapter 6) I followed that convention. In this paper I do so as well. I assume that the Synoptic Gospels are the basis of Christian ethics and show that the ethical views and behavior presented there conflict with Jesus as a moral ideal.

[15] See, The Case Against Christianity, pp. 208-11.

[16] I say “perhaps” because the fairness question might be raised with respect to universalism as well. Is it fair that everyone will be saved when some people have lived incredibly evil lives while others have lived wonderfully good lives? On the question of fairness in salvation see Richard Schoenig, “The Argument from Unfairness,” International Journal of Philosophy and Religion, 45, 1999, pp. 115-128.

[17] See The Case Against Christianity, Chapter 6.

[18] See Morton Smith, “Biblical Arguments for Slavery”, Free Inquiry, 7, Spring 1987, p. 30.

[19] Ibid.; see also Edward A. Westermarck, “Christianity and Slavery,” A Second Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, ed. Gordon Stein, (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1987), pp. 427-437.

[20] See for example, Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd, 1948), p.254. According to Russell the followers of the cynic Antisthenes condemned slavery. Moreover, even Aristotle who is usually considered an advocate of slavery was opposed to slavery that is the result of war and conquest. See W. D. Ross, Aristotle, (London: Metheun and Co. LTD, 1956), p. 241.

[21] See The Case Against Christianity, pp. 172-191.

[22] See The Case Against Christianity, Appendix 2.

[23] L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine the Atonement, (London: Manchester University Press, 1920) Chapters 4, 5, 6.

[24] See Joseph M. Colleran’s Introduction to Anselm, Why God Became Man and The Virgin Conception and Original Sin, trans., introduction, and notes by Joseph M. Colleran (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1969) pp. 44-45.

[25] See The Case Against Christianity, Appendix 2.

[26] I am indebted here to Ted Drange’s Nonbelief and Evil, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), pp. 80-82.

[27] Ps 86:5, 100:5, 103:8, 106:1, 136:2, 145:8-9; Joel 2:13; Mic 7:18; Jas 5:11.

[28] De 7:2, 16, 20:16-17; Jos 6:21, 10:11, 19, 40, 11:6-20; Isa 6:19, 15:3; Na 1:2; Jer 13:14; Mt 8:12, 13:42, 50, 25:30, 41, 46; Mk 3:29; 2Th 1:8-9; Re 14:9-11, 21:8.

[29] Ge 6:6; Ex 32:14; 1Sa 2:30-31, 15:11,35; 2Sa 24:16; 2Ki 20: 1-6; Ps 106:45; Jer 42:10; Am 7:3; Jon 3:10.

[30] Nu 23:19; ISa 15:29, Eze 24:14; Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17.

[31] Ge 11:7; Jg 9:23; 1Sa 16:14; La 3:38; 1Ki 22:22-23; Isa 45:7; Am 3:6; Jer18:11, 20:7; Eze 20:25; 2 Th 2:11.

[32] De 32:4; Ps 25:8, 100:5, 145:9; ICo 14:33.

[33] Ge 9:22-25; Ex 20:5, 34:7; Nu 14:18; De 5:9; 2Sa 12:14; Isa 14:21, 65:6-7.

[34] De 24:16; 2Ch 25:4; Eze 18:20.

[35] For an account of these two types of knowledge see Israel Scheffler, Conditions of Knowledge, (Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Co. 1965).

[36] See D. W. Hamlyn, The Theory of Knowledge, (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1970), pp. 104-106.

[37] This argument was developed in Michael Martin, “A Disproof of the God of the Common Man,” Question, 1974, 115-124; Michael Martin, A Disproof of God’s Existence, Darshana International, 1970.

[38] Cf. David Blumenfeld, “On the Compossibility of the Divine Attributes,” Philosophical Studies, 34, 1978, pp. 91-103.

[39] I might have considered many other aspects of Christianity which have absurd implications. Perhaps a plausible candidate would be the prima facie incoherent notion of the Trinity, which is central to Christian teachings. Moreover, another plausible candidate would be the absurdity of the importance of worship of God in Christianity. See “God and Moral Autonomy” by James Rachels.

[40] I am indebted to Jeff Lowder and three anonymous readers for helpful comments on a much earlier draft of this paper. I am also indebted to Jeff Lowder for reading a later version and making detailed comments.