Jesus Would Have Been an Atheist?
by Brandon Vogt
Filed under Historicity
In a recent interview with The Guardian, popular atheist Richard Dawkins made a strange and audacious claim:
"I wrote [an] article called ‘Atheists for Jesus,’ I think it was...Somebody gave me a t-shirt: ‘Atheists for Jesus.’ Well, the point was that Jesus was a great moral teacher and I was suggesting that somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today."
His proposal, of course, gives rise to the question, what new knowledge—scientific, moral, historical, or religious—would cause Jesus to reverse his divinity claims? What new discoveries have been made that definitely prove Jesus is not God?
Dawkins' confusing claim is rooted in his quip that Jesus was simply a good man—elsewhere in the interview Dawkins calls him “intelligent” and “a great moral teacher"—but he certainly wasn't God. Jesus never claimed to be divine and so we shouldn't project that identity onto him. Let's just learn from his teachings, care for the poor and marginalized, and follow his imitable example.
The problem is that if there's one thing Jesus cannot be, it's "just a good man" or "just a wise teacher." C.S. Lewis, who like Dawkins taught at Oxford back in the mid-twentieth century, subverted this view in his classic book, Mere Christianity:
"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.
You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."
Granted there is another option which Lewis neglects, namely that the Jesus we find in the Bible and other early writings is fabricated or embellished. But in this case, it's clear Dawkins was referring to the Jesus we discover in the New Testament. And that Jesus, he believes, precisely because of his intelligence and moral integrity, would renounce God if he was living today.
Fr. Robert Barron provides his own response to this "good, but not God" claim in the first episode of his CATHOLICISM documentary series:
What do you think? Would Jesus have been an atheist today?
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