What does it mean when an atheist says “I don’t believe in Jesus”? Does it mean that they don’t believe he is the Son of God or the Risen Christ? Does it mean that they don’t think the character of Jesus ever existed at all? Is there a third option here? Different atheists will give you different answers, but here are three of the most common descriptions of the atheist Jesus.
The Atheist Jesus Option A: Just A Man
While some atheists definitely don’t believe Jesus existed at all (I’ll get to them in a second), many–in fact, I’d venture to say most–atheists do accept that there might have been a human man named Jesus who walked the earth approximately 2,000 years ago.
Many think it is reasonable to believe that Jesus existed historically. After all, Jesus was a fairly common name at the time, there were plenty of itinerant rabbis wandering around preaching about the end of days and the destruction of the Roman Empire, and crucifixion (the part Jesus is possibly most known for) was a standard method of execution.
To believe these things happened, in the context of their time, would be as reasonable as believing that in the year 2021, a man named Joe Smith who worked as a plumber died in a car crash. Of course that could happen. There is nothing miraculous or shocking about it.
The Atheist Jesus Option B: Just A Myth
Some atheists disagree with the idea that Jesus existed at all. This is usually called “mythicism”. Proponents of mythicism like Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier, and David Fitzgerald claim that Jesus was a myth, compiled over the years with no real basis in an actual character.
Mythicists believe this is a reasonable position for several reasons, including:
- Paul’s epistles (which are older than the Gospels) don’t talk much at all about Jesus’s biography or any distinguishing traits about the human Jesus. In fact, Paul talks mostly about Jesus as a heavenly character rather than an earthly one. Only later in the Gospels do we get any concept of Jesus as a human being grounded in history.
- The Gospels are mostly narrative rather than historical in nature. They point to things like contradictions and errors in timeline, genealogy, and contemporary events. They also point out that the Gospels get more and more mythic in structure and tone as they build upon each other, with Mark being the least mythical and John being much more so. There are even some lost Gospels that have giant Jesus and a giant walking cross appear in the sky after the Resurrection!
- There are no independent eye-witness accounts. There are many contemporary authors who discuss Christians, but none outside of the Bible who reference Christ in a way that would be described as an eye-witness account. This lack of external corroboration is a red flag to mythicists.
When you have all the earmarks of a legend in the making and no corroborating evidence from third party contemporaries, determining the historicity of a person can get slippery.
And while mythicism is not as supported in the mainstream as the acceptance of a historical Jesus, it is important to hear out these arguments in their entirety before judging for oneself.
The Atheist Jesus Option C: Just A Mix
What if there was a third option? Perhaps there were several real-life historical characters who existed, all of whom experienced some of the biographical details attributed to Jesus.
To some atheists, this might seem like a reasonable middle ground to hold. Over time, they morphed into a single individual, a figurehead for a movement, a mythic figure based in the reality of many? Or perhaps there was a single historical character who, over the course of the writing of the Gospels, was so mythologized that he lost all historical grounding beyond a name and perhaps some wise sayings. In short, the Jesus we hear about from the Bible would be nothing like the Jesus that actually existed.
Why make this distinction? Well, think about our example: Joe the plumber who died in a car crash. Think about the leap of faith it takes to go from “Joe Smith the plumber died in a car crash” to “Joe Smith the plumber died in a car crash after fixing the Mayor’s pipes using nothing but telekinesis and a wrench gifted to him by fairies.” Well. Joe might still exist, but we’re going to have to unpack some of this stuff.
In that same way, accepting the existence of a historical Jesus does not grandfather in any additional claims about miracles, signs, or prophecies. Those would need to be evaluated on their own, and stand or fall on their own merit. An internally consistent way to explain the supernatural elements of the Gospel while accepting a historical grounding for Jesus’s existence would be to propose this third option: the man and the myth combined!
Why These Different Viewpoints Are Important to Know
On the one hand, the argument could be made that it doesn’t really matter whether atheists believe in the historical Jesus. If they don’t believe he is the Son of God who died for their sins and rose again, they’re doomed one way or another.
But it can be very helpful to know for a couple of reasons. First, it allows for a better understanding of where a conversation might go, which facts are granted and which are not, and where each party stands on the subject. Knowing these things are always important when debating!
It can also be very helpful to know because atheists are not a monolith. There is no doctrine or dogma, we all don’t believe the same thing. Some of us are torn on issues like these, and can see the reasoning behind all options. Being open to listening to where an individual is coming from without ascribing them a position based on an assumption is so important in connecting and having a good conversation.
So next time an atheist says “I don’t believe in Jesus,” ask them what they mean by that, and be open to hearing their reasons. They may just surprise you!
Do you think Jesus existed? Do you think he was a myth? If you’re interested in talking more about this, we would love to talk to you! Call 585-LA-MURPH or visit tiny.cc/callSG on Sunday mornings at 11:30am CT to talk with us on air.