Evidence for Atheism

Where is the historical evidence for atheism?

By Robin Schumacher

Evidence for Atheism: The Series

Where is the evidence for atheism?
Where is the empirical evidence for atheism?
Where is the historical evidence for atheism?

What does the atheist do with Jesus of Nazareth?

Some atheists, right from the start, try to inject doubt into this topic by either overtly claiming or subtly hinting that there actually was no historical Jesus of Nazareth. For example, Bertrand Russell wrote: "Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if he did we know nothing about him."[4]

Although some may argue for the participation of other, earlier historical figures that began making these claims, most historians peg the start of these allegations with a man named Bruno Bauer (18091882). Bauer was a German theologian, philosopher and historian who looked at the sources of the New Testament and controversially concluded that early Christianity owed more to Greek philosophy (Stoicism) than to Judaism. Starting in 1840, he began a series of controversial works arguing that Jesus was a myth, a second century fusion of Jewish, Greek, and Roman theology.

Bauer's work was picked up by Albert Kalthoff (1850-1906) who followed Bauer's extreme skepticism about the historical Jesus. Kalthoff went so far as to claim that Jesus of Nazareth never existed and was not the founder of Christianity.

However, Bauer's and Kalthoff's assertions were refuted (and have continued to be refuted) by legions of historians, both Christian and secular. One example is Gary Habermas book "The Historical Jesus" that chronicles scores of extra-biblical historical references to Jesus' first century life, the count of which outnumbers citations of historical figures that no person doubts (e.g. Tiberius Caesar; 10 mentions vs. 43 for Jesus).

Summing up the conclusion on whether Jesus of Nazareth actually lived, Princeton New Testament scholar Dr. Bruce Metzger says, "Today no competent scholar denies the historicity of Jesus."[5]

So where is the atheist's evidence that Jesus of Nazareth never existed? To date, no compelling proof has been offered.

Some atheists who know better than to attack the historicity of Jesus' actual life put forward arguments that involve Christ being mythologized by His followers into more than He was. They try and assert that various pagan gods such as Horus, Mithras, etc., influenced the disciples who borrowed traits from those deities and attached them to Jesus.

Books such as James Frazer's The Golden Bough and more recent works like the Internet Zeitgeist movie have been literally pulverized into submission by scholars who have showcased the many logical fallacies committed by the authors and the extraordinary lack of real commitment to historical research. Metzger says:
It goes without saying that alleged parallels which are discovered by pursuing such methodology evaporate when they are confronted with the original texts. In a word, one must beware of what have been called, "parallels made plausible by selective description."[6]
The fact is, the atheist cannot deny the historicity of Jesus' life and be on the side of historical truth. The core historical facts include the following:

Jesus was born to a young and very ordinary couple. There was some controversy surrounding his birth (which primarily centered on who his actual father was), however outside of that, he lived in relative obscurity for about thirty years. He then burst onto the religious scene in the Roman occupied areas of Galilee and Jerusalem as a very learned Jewish Rabbi, despite never being formerly educated. Reports of him performing amazing miracles (e.g. healing the sick, raising the dead, performing exorcisms) spread throughout the regions, along with claims of him being the long awaited Jewish Messiah. He gathered around him a band of fairly unsophisticated disciples, with others also following his itinerant preaching journeys.

Soon, though, he ran afoul of the Jewish religious leaders and was brought before the Roman authorities on a number of unsubstantiated charges. He was then condemned to death under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, put to death under the common form of Roman execution, which was crucifixion, and then buried.

Three days later, his body went missing and remains missing to this day. Reports of him appearing to both believers and unbelievers alike quickly began to circulate. His disciples who had fled from him during his arrest then boldly began to declare that they had seen him alive, that he was the Christ of God, with his resurrection becoming the absolute center of their preaching. A number of his disciples were martyred for their refusal to deny their story, with others like John dying of natural causes.

Lastly, a zealous Jewish Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, who had formerly persecuted the new Jesus movement, claimed he too had seen Jesus alive. Saul converted to the Christian faith and eventually was beheaded by the emperor Nero for his faith around 65 A.D.

Now, it's important to understand one thing about the prior statements: none of them requires any faith whatsoever to believe. Not one. Every claim above can be confirmed via the standard, scholarly methods (including archaeological finds that back the Bible) used to verify ancient history.

The question is, when a philosophical appeal to the best explanation is made to account for these facts, where does the atheist end up?

What bothers the atheists the most, obviously, is Christ's resurrection. Dead men stay dead, says the atheist. Our experience tells us that this is something you can count on.

Dead people do indeed stay dead in a naturalistic-only reality that is a closed system. But what if...what if there is a supernatural reality and our universe is actually an open system to a Creator that transcends everything that is physical? That is a horse of a different color, and one that goes back to the atheist's need for philosophical and empirical evidence to rule out God.


Occasionally an atheist will say to me (quoting Carl Sagan): "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." What they often don't realize is that, while they meant to slice into me with their comment, their sword actually cuts both ways.

The atheist claims that a cause (with a beginning all its own) possessing none of the characteristics of its effects created all that we know. That's a pretty extraordinary claim.

The atheist claims that "Living objects...look designed, they look overwhelmingly as though they're designed. Biology is the study of complicated things which give the impression of having been designed for a purpose"[7], and that the information (not data) contained with all of us did not come from an intelligent source. That's a pretty extraordinary claim.

The atheist claims that either Jesus never existed or all the historical accounts written about Him are inaccurate, exaggerated, and cannot be trusted. That's a pretty extraordinary claim.

If extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, then the atheist has some explaining to do. And that explaining needs to involve supplying the same rock-solid proof (not mere theories) that they themselves routinely require of Christians.

4. Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian, pg. 16.
5. Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content, (New York: Abingdon, 1965), pg. 78.
6. Bruce Metzger, Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian, (Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1968), 9.
7. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1986, Pg. 1.

Image Credit: Dnalor_01; "Christus und die 12 Apostel"; Creative Commons

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Published 5-30-12