McDowell’s Trilemma Argument (hereafter: MTA), can be found in The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (hereafter: NETDV) by Josh McDowell (see pages 158-163).
The first key premise of MTA is this:
- Jesus claimed to be God.
None of the canonical Gospels report Jesus as having asserted the claim “I am God” nor the claim “Jesus of Nazareth is God” nor the claim “The Messiah is God, and I am the Messiah”. Based on the canonical Gospels, Jesus never directly CLAIMED to be God. However, it is possible to IMPLY that a person is God without saying so directly, so it is possible that Jesus IMPLIED that he was God, without directly CLAIMING to be God.
For Jesus to clearly IMPLY that he was God, Jesus would have to make the following CLAIMS:
I am an eternally bodiless person, and an eternally omnipotent person, and an eternally omniscient person, and an eternally perfectly morally good person, and I am the creator of the universe.
In Part 1 of this series, we saw that Jesus never directly CLAIMED to be a bodiless person, nor did Jesus IMPLY that he was a bodiless person. Because Jesus never claimed to be a bodiless person, and never claimed to be a “spirit”, and because Jesus repeatedly asserted that he had a physical body made of “flesh and bones”, Jesus clearly IMPLIED that he was not a spirit and not a bodiless person. Therefore, Jesus clearly IMPLIED that he was not God.
In Part 2 of this series, we saw that Jesus never directly CLAIMED to be eternally omnipotent, nor to be omnipotent, nor all-powerful, nor almighty. Based on the canonical Gospels, Jesus never directly CLAIMED to be omnipotent. We also looked at some passages from the canonical Gospels put forward by McDowell in support of the view that Jesus was omnipotent, but upon closer examination of those passages, we saw that in none of them does Jesus clearly CLAIM or IMPLY that he was eternally omnipotent or even just omnipotent.
In Part 3 of this series, we saw that Jesus never directly CLAIMED to be eternally omniscient, nor to be omniscient, nor to be all-knowing, nor that he knew every single fact about every single thing that has ever existed or that ever will exist. Based on the canonical Gospels, Jesus never directly CLAIMED to be omniscient. We also looked at some passages from the canonical Gospels put forward by McDowell in support of the view that Jesus was omniscient, but upon closer examination of those passages, we saw that in none of them does Jesus clearly CLAIM or IMPLY that he was eternally omniscient or even just omniscient.
Eternally Perfectly Morally Good
In The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict McDowell does not argue that Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he (Jesus) was eternally perfectly morally good, or that he was perfectly morally good, or that he was perfectly good. But in a different book, McDowell (and co-author Bart Larson) argues that Jesus was GOOD:
Scripture is clear. Jesus was “sinless,” “holy,” “innocent,” “righteous,” “separate from sinners,” and “undefiled” (Acts 3:14; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). By all standards of goodness, Jesus was truly “good.” Thus, Jesus shared an attribute of God: goodness. (Jesus: A Biblical Defense of His Deity, p.97)
Since McDowell only provides six NT passages in support of this view, I have supplemented his evidence with NT passages provided by the Christian apologist Norman Geisler on a closely-related issue. Geisler (and co-author Ron Brooks) uses biblical evidence from the NT to argue that Jesus was sinless:
To live a sinless life does not prove Deity by itself (though only Jesus has managed to do so), but to claim to be God and offer a sinless life as evidence is another matter. (When Skeptics Ask, p.116)
Later in this post I will discuss the relationship between being “sinless” and being a perfectly morally good person.
The “Biblical” evidence for Jesus being perfectly morally good (or for Jesus being “sinless”) comes in at least FOUR different TYPES:
TYPE I. A report that Jesus said something, and that something was (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was perfectly morally good (or “sinless”).
TYPE II. A report that someone else (other than Jesus) said something, and that something was (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was perfectly morally good (or “sinless”).
TYPE III. The author or narrator of a passage says something (in that passage) that was (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was perfectly morally good (or “sinless”).
TYPE IV. A report that Jesus said or did something, and that event (if it actually occurred, allegedly) provides EVIDENCE that proves or supports the claim that Jesus was perfectly morally good (or “sinless”).
The only type of evidence that is relevant to assessing premise (1) of MTA is TYPE I evidence, a report that Jesus said something, and that something was (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was perfectly morally good (or “sinless”).
For purposes of evaluating premise (1) we don’t care whether other people (including the disciples of Jesus) believed Jesus was perfectly morally good (or “sinless”), and we don’t care whether the author or narrator of a New Testament passage believed that Jesus was perfectly morally good (or “sinless”), and we also don’t care whether Jesus was in fact perfectly morally good (or “sinless”). In this context, we are only concerned about what Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED about himself, which means that we only care about the Gospel passages that contain (or that appear to contain) TYPE I evidence.
The following image shows a chart (click on the image for a clearer view of the chart) about the TYPES of evidence contained in the thirteen NT passages put forward by McDowell (see quote above) and Geisler (When Skeptics Ask, p.117):
Because we are only concerned about TYPE I evidence, we can quicly eliminate most of the thirteen NT passages put forward by McDowell and Geisler as irrelevant to the task of evaluating premise (1) of MTA.
Note that four of these NT passages contain only TYPE II evidence, evidence that consists of a report that someone else (other than Jesus) said something, and that something was (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was perfectly morally good (or “sinless”). Those four passages are thus irrelevant to an evaluation of premise (1) of MTA.
Note also that eight of these NT passages contain only TYPE III evidence, evidence where the author or narrator of a passage says something (in that passage) that was (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was perfectly morally good (or “sinless”). Those eight passages are thus irrelevant to an evaluation of premise (1) of MTA.
There is only one NT passage out of the thirteen that McDowell and Geisler cite, in which Jesus says something that might be taken as CLAIMING or IMPLYING that he is perfectly morally good or that he is “sinless”. Thus, there is only one NT passage out of the thirteen cited by McDowell and Geisler that is relevant to an evaluation of premise (1) of MTA. So, let’s examine that passage:
John 8:39-47 (NRSV)
39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did,
40 but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.
41 You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.”
42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.
43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word.
44 You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.
46 Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?
47 Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”
FIRST, I think that it is more than just a bit ironic that the ONE single NT passage that is provided as evidence that Jesus claimed to be perfectly morally good, happens to be one of the most vile and morally corrupting passages in the entire NT.
One of the great sins of Christianity has been the horrible, cruel, and unjust persecution and murder of Jews by Christians. The millions of Jews who were enslaved, brutalized, and murdered by the Christian nation of Germany in WWII would NOT have been enslaved, brutalized, and murdered had it not been for anti-Jewish passages in the NT, and this passage is one of the very worst of those passages.
If Jesus was omniscient, as McDowell and Geisler both claim, then Jesus would have known that these words of his would be used by Christians to promote and justify anti-semitism for centuries, and that this would ultimately lead to the brutalization and murder of millions of innocent people of Jewish ancestry. So, if Jesus was indeed omniscient, then Chapter 8 of the Gospel of John is evidence that Jesus was a SOCIOPATH who did not give a damn about what would happen to future generations of his own people.
For centuries Christians have viewed Jews as treacherous, bloodthirsty “Christ killers”. Chapter 8 of the Gospel of John is one of the main NT passages that was used to promote this negative view of Jews:
The Gospel of John has long provided anti-Semites with grist for their mill. There are 31 instances where the gospel uses the word Ἰουδαῖοι, the Jews in a hostile sense, among the 63 uses  of the word in this gospel, and all Jewish groups are lumped together, with no distinctions made between them. The Sadducees, prominent elsewhere, disappear. The enemies of Jesus are described collectively as “the Jews”, in contradistinction to the other evangelists, who do not generally  ascribe to “the Jews” en masse calls for the death of Jesus. In the other 3 texts, the plot to put him to death is always presented as coming from a small group of priests and rulers, the Sadducees. John’s gospel is thus the primary source of the image of “the Jews” acting collectively as the enemy of Jesus, which later became fixed in Christian minds. Some still see the use of anti-Semitic to describe his outlook problematical, if not an indeed anachronistic: John was a Jew, writing of his hero, a Jew, namely, Jesus, who is said to have declared that a house divided against itself cannot stand. John himself has Jesus tell the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Jews.” For example, in John 7:1-9 Jesus moves around in Galilee but avoids Judea, because “the Jews” were looking for a chance to kill him. In 7:12-13 some said “he is a good man” whereas others said he deceives the people, but these were all “whispers”, no one would speak publicly for “fear of the Jews”. Jewish rejection is also recorded in 7:45-52, 8:39-59, 10:22-42, and 12:36-43. John 12:42 says many did believe, but they kept it private, for fear the Pharisees would exclude them from the Synagogue. After the crucifixion, 20:19 has the disciples hiding behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews”.
In several places John’s gospel also associates “the Jews” with darkness and with the devil. In John 8:37-39; 44-47, Jesus says, speaking to a group of Pharisees:
I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me, because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father. They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did. … You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But, because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is you are not of God.
Though it has been claimed that the modern consensus is that the term Ioudaioi/Jews in John refers exclusively to religious authorities, the basis for this claim has been challenged and John’s use of the term ‘Jews’ remains a complex and debated area of biblical scholarship. New Testament scholar J.G. Dunn writes:
The Fourth Evangelist is still operating within a context of intra-Jewish factional dispute, although the boundaries and definitions themselves are part of that dispute. It is clear beyond doubt that once the Fourth Gospel is removed from that context, and the constraints of that context, it was all too easily read as an anti-Jewish polemic and became a tool of anti-semitism. But it is highly questionable whether the Fourth Evangelist himself can fairly be indicted for either anti-Judaism or anti-semitism.
Reflecting the consensus that John’s use of the term refers strictly to Jewish religious authorities, some modern translations, such as Today’s New International Version, remove the term “Jews” and replace it with more specific terms to avoid anti-Semitic connotations. For example, the Jesus Seminar translates this as “Judeans”, i.e. residents of Judea, in contrast to residents of Galilee, a translation which has not found general acceptance.
(excerpted from Wikipedia article “Antisemitism and the New Testament“)
I understand that Jesus was a Jew and that Jesus was not anti-semetic or even anti-Jewish (i.e. Jesus did not oppose or reject the Jewish religion). I understand that the author of the Gospel of John was not anti-semitic. However, there is reason to believe that the author of this Gospel was anti-Jewish, that is, there are indications that the author of the Gospel of John (and his community of Christian believers) were angry and bitter at Jews who maintained the traditional Jewish religion, who rejected the view that Jesus was the Messiah, and who excommunicated Christian believers from synagogues.
The Gospel of John is thought of as the Gospel of “Love” by most Christians, but it is actually, in some ways, a gospel of HATE. While the synpotic Gospels report that Jesus taught his followers to “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44, see also Luke 6:27), in the Gospel of John Jesus teaches his followers only to “Love one another” (John 13:34-35), meaning that Christian believers ought to be loving towards each other. The Jesus of the Gospel of John does NOT teach that his followers should love their enemies, or pray for those who persecuted them, because that would mean that the early Jewish Christians were obliged to love their more traditional Jewish bretheren who were persecuting them and kicking them out of the synagogues.
A brief web article on NT influence in development of anti-semitism among Christians:
A brief defense of the NT against the charge of anti-semitism:
Anti-Semetism in the New Testament?
So, the ONE single NT passage that has been provided (between the various passages offered by McDowell and Geisler) which might potentially show that Jesus CLAIMED to be a perfectly morally good person, is a passage where Jesus actually provides us with evidence that he was a SOCIOPATH, since only a SOCIOPATH would speak such harsh things about his fellow Jews KNOWING that those harsh words would later be used by Christians for centuries to promote and justify anti-semitism and hatred, persecution and brutalization, and the murder of his fellow Jews.
Of course, I don’t believe that Jesus was omniscient, so I don’t view this as a good argument for the conclusion that Jesus was a SOCIOPATH. But McDowell and Geisler DO believe that Jesus was omniscient, so they don’t have the option to challenge or reject the assumption that Jesus was omniscient.
If Jesus was NOT omniscient, then Jesus was NOT God. But if Jesus was indeed omniscient, then Jesus must have KNOWN that the angry words he spoke in the above passage from the Gospel of John would inspire anti-semitism among Christians, and would lead to the enslavement, brutalization, and murder of millions of innocent Jews in the 20th century. If Jesus was omniscient, and if the words attributed to Jesus in Chapter 8 of the Gospel of John are an accurate report of words spoken by the historical Jesus, then we would have good reason to believe that Jesus was a SOCIOPATH, and NOT a perfectly morally good person, and thus we would have good reason to believe that Jesus was NOT God. So, either Jesus was omniscient but a sociopath and thus not God, or else Jesus was not omniscient and thus not God.
SECOND, because most mainstream NT scholars and Jesus scholars have concluded that the Gospel of John is an unreliable source of the words and teachings of the historical Jesus, it is unlikely that the words attributed to Jesus in John 8:39-47 represent an accurate report of the words and teachings of the historical Jesus. I seriously doubt that the historical Jesus, if there was such a person, spoke the bitter words attributed to him in this passage from the Gospel of John. It is more likely that these words express the anger and bitterness of second-generation Christian believers who were Jewish but who were excommunicated from synagogues by their fellow Jews, and that the views of these bitter Jewish Christians were put into the mouth of Jesus by a community of angry Jewish Christians, and then those words were later misunderstood by ignorant and bigotted Christians for many centuries.
THIRD, Jesus does not explicitly CLAIM to be perfectly morally good here, nor does he explicitly CLAIM to be perfectly good, nor does he explicitly CLAIM to be sinless. In John 8:46, Jesus asks a QUESTION:
Which of you convicts me of sin?
In the context, however, we can reasonably take this to be a rhetorical question, which is a way of making the following CLAIM:
(NCS) None of you (Jewish critics of Jesus) are able to convict me (Jesus) of sin.
This claim does not imply that Jesus had never sinned. It only implies that the Jews in the group that he was speaking to at the time did not have evidence that would prove or justify the claim that Jesus had sinned. But the absence of evidence sufficient to prove or justify a claim does not mean that the claim is false. Sometimes a person commits a crime, but the police and detectives are not able to gather sufficient evidence to prove that the perpetrator of the crime is GUILTY of having committed that crime. The failure to be able to prove guilt is NOT the same as proof of innocence. The fact that Jesus’s critics were not able to prove that Jesus had sinned, is not proof that Jesus was completely innocent of sin. Thus, Jesus’s CLAIM that othere were unable to prove him guilty of sin, does not amount to a CLAIM to be completely free from sin.
So long as Jesus had not committed an obvious and public sin in recent weeks or months, that would be all that was necessary for Jesus to be reasonably confident in asserting (NCS). Jesus’s critics had not been observing Jesus actions and behavior for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from the moment of his birth. So, if Jesus had committed an obvious or public sin as a child or teenager, the critics who opposed him as an adult (in the group that he was addressing), would be very unlikely to know about those events and would be very unlikely to be able to offer solid evidence of Jesus having committed those sins in his youth. Furthermore, if Jesus had committed sins more recently, but did not do so in an obvious and public manner, then those critics of his would also be unlikely to possess and offer solid evidence of Jesus having committed those hidden and private sins.
Jesus taught that God looks upon the hearts of humans (Luke 16:15, Matthew 15:8), and thus that there are sins that one can commit in one’s mind, without performing any publically observable actions. If Jesus had lusted in his mind about having sex with Mary Magdalene, then, according to Jesus’s own teachings (Matthew 5:28), he would have committed a sin, even if he never actually touched or kissed Mary Magdalene. So, it is entirely possible for Jesus to have committed many sins, without there being any obvious or public evidence of those sins for his opponents and critics to point out. Thus, even if Jesus had CLAIMED that it was completely impossible for any human being to ever produce any solid evidence of any sin ever committed by Jesus, even as a child or a teenager, that still would NOT clearly imply that Jesus was CLAIMING or IMPLYING that he was sinless, because human beings cannot observe sins that are committed in a person’s mind.
FOURTH, even if one were to take this passage as one in which Jesus IMPLIED that he had lived a completely sinless life, that would still fall short of showing that Jesus IMPLIED that he was eternally perfectly morally good. According to McDowell and Geisler, Jesus had existed from all eternity. So, going thirty years without committing any sins does not show that Jesus had never committed any sins in the eternity that he had existed prior to creating the universe and prior to visiting this planet. Did Jesus commit any sins during the thirteen billion years between when the universe began to exist and his birth? Who knows? Thus, a CLAIM to have lived a sinless life for thirty years is not a CLAIM to have lived a sinless life for all eternity past.
FIFTH, even if one were to take this passage as one in which Jesus IMPLIED that he had never committed a single sin even in the eternity of time that he existed before being born, that would still fall short of showing that Jesus IMPLIED that he was eternally perfectly morally good. The problem is that “sins” are basically transgressions or violations of laws or commands of God. Some laws or commands can be perfectly obeyed, but others cannot be perfectly obeyed.
Commands to AVOID doing something (e.g. lying, stealing, murdering, etc.) can be obeyed perfectly, because it is possible for a person to always choose to not lie, and not steal, and not murder. But positive commands to act in accordance with an IDEAL, such as “Love your neighbor”, cannot be perfectly obeyed.
One can always love one’s neighbor a little bit more. If I give one dollar to one homeless person, then I have practiced the principle of “Love your neighbor”. But I could have given two dollars to one homeless person. That would be following this principle to a greater degree. If, however, I gave two dollars to one homeless person, I could have done more than that. I could have given three dollars to that one homeless person.
What if I gave an infinite number of dollars to one homeless person? That would still not completely satisfy the principle “Love your neighbor”, because I could have also given some money, say one dollar, to a second homeless person, and thus helped two homeless people. But then I could have done more, by giving two dollars to the second homeless person, and so on. There is no maximum degree of satisfying the “command” to “Love your neighbor”.
The idea that someone has lived a sinless life, at least for a brief period of time, implies that this person has not violated any negative command from God to AVOID certain bad or evil actions (e.g. lying, stealing, murdering, etc.). But being “sinless” does NOT IMPLY that one has lived fully in accordance with positive commands from God to act in accordance with an IDEAL, like “Love your neighbor”. One can be “sinless” merely by AVOIDING doing evil, but that does not mean that one has lived fully in accordance with various IDEALs that God has (allegedly) commanded people to pursue. Thus, the CLAIM to have lived a completely sinless life does not IMPLY that one has lived a perfectly morally good life.
Out of thirteen different NT passages put forward by McDowell and Geisler in support of the perfect moral goodness or sinlessness of Jesus, only ONE of those NT passages contains TYPE I evidence (John 8:46), where Jesus is reported to have said something in which he (allegedly) CLAIMS or IMPLIES that he is eternally perfectly morally good, or perfectly morally good, or sinless. So, that ONE NT passage is the only passage of those provided by McDowell and Geisler that could potentially be relevant to an evaluation of premise (1) of MTA.
There are several problems with this evidence:
- The passage in question played an important role in the promotion and justification of Christian anti-semitism, which led to the enslavement, brutalization, and murder of millions of innocent Jews by the Christian nation of Germany. If Jesus was omniscient, as McDowell and Geisler claim, then Jesus knew that his words would be used in this way and have those horrible consequences; this passage thus provides evidence that Jesus was a SOCIOPATH (on the assumption that the historical Jesus spoke the words reported in the passage, and that Jesus was in fact omniscient), and thus that Jesus was NOT an eternally perfectly morally good person.
- This passage probably does not accurately report the words of the historical Jesus, because the Gospel of John is an unreliable source of the words and teachings of the historical Jesus, assuming that there was an historical Jesus.
- The specific CLAIM that Jesus makes is (NCS). But (NCS) does not CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was sinless nor that he was eternally perfectly morally good: (a) the lack of proof of guilt is not the same as proof of innocence, (b) we would expect Jesus’s critics to lack proof of any public sins committed by Jesus as a child or teenager, (c) we would expect Jesus’s critics to lack proof of any hidden and private sins committed by Jesus as an adult, (d) we know that Jesus’s critics would lack proof of any sins that Jesus committed in his mind (e.g. lust in his heart for a young woman).
- Even if we interpret this passage as showing that Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he had lived a completely sinless life, this still falls short of showing that Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he was an eternally perfectly morally good person, because refraining from committing any sins for thirty years does not mean that Jesus had avoided committing any sins for the eternity that he (allegedly) existed prior to being born. Thirty years is an insignificant sample size, when we are generalizing over an infinite period of time. In fact, thirty years is an insignifcant sample size, when we consider a generalization extending for just the 13 billion years that this universe has existed.
- Even if we interpret this passage as showing that Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he has been completely sinless for all eternity past, that still does not mean that Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he was eternally perfectly morally good, because moral goodness goes above and beyond just being sinlesss. Sinning is basically violating a command of God to AVOID doing certain evil actions. But being perfectly morally good requires more than that one AVOID doing evil actions, it also requires living in accordance with various IDEALs that God has (allegedly) commanded people to pursue. So, being sinless does not IMPLY being perfectly morally good.