Atheism and the goodness of God 12: why believe in Jesus?

The last chapter I’m going to look at in this series on the Atheism and the Goodness of God, is Mark Mittelberg’s ‘Why Faith in Jesus Matters’ which forms chapter 14 of God is Good, God is Great: why believing in God is Reasonable and Responsible.

This chapter reads like an evangelistic sermon, exhorting a response from the reader.

He begins with the often overlooked point that everybody – Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, agnostic and atheist – has faith in something, even if it faith in ourselves or faith that it doesn’t matter what we believe and how we live.

The Christian believes that it really matters that we have faith in Jesus.

His main two points revolve around two questions:

1. But why trust in Jesus?

For faith to be worth having it needs to be true and good and so ‘faithworthy’. Faith in Jesus depends on his identity being worthy of faith. So Mittelberg gives an apologia for the ‘greatness and goodness of Jesus.

Power: Jesus demonstrated his miracle working power over nature and over death itself.

Knowledge: he knows people’s thoughts before they speak.

Eternity: Jesus claims to be equal with God and never corrects people’s impressions that they are blaspheming

Love and Grace; Jesus consistently shows risky, barrier-breaking love and grace to those who are marginalised, ostracised and alienated.

2. Why is faith in Jesus important?

Mittelberg’s basic point is a very familiar one – that we are deeply flawed, we don’t have all the answers, we ‘deserve punishment for our sins and failings’ and that God, in infinite love, has made a way for us through Jesus.

And to talk hold of this hope, we need to step out in faith, to respond, to believe and receive (Jn 1:12) and so have the life that is available for us in Jesus (Jn 10:10).

While this is a very familiar way of presenting the good news, I thought this was a disappointing chapter. The reasons to believe in Jesus did not go beyond general proof texts. He says for example that Jesus repeatedly goes around saying he was the Son of God, ‘meaning he uniquely shared in the Father’s divine nature.’ This is not accurate. The meaning of the term can’t be reduced to equalling deity as Mittelberg suggests.

In general the discussion, contrary to much of the book, is written with no engagement with objections and arguments from an agnostic or atheist perspective. It all reads very ‘in house’.

This all raises questions: how best is the good news communicated to a sceptical post-Christendom culture? How do you try to ‘get over’ the ‘over-familiarity’ that many in Ireland have towards Christianity so the good news can be ‘heard’ afresh?

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2 thoughts on “Atheism and the goodness of God 12: why believe in Jesus?

  1. You said: “He says for example that Jesus repeatedly goes around saying he was the Son of God, ‘meaning he uniquely shared in the Father’s divine nature.’ This is not accurate. The meaning of the term can’t be reduced to equalling deity as Mittelberg suggests.”

    But John says (in John 5:18) “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

    Also, John 10:33-36 says: “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?

    It seems clear in these passages that both John and Jesus were equating Jesus’ claim to being the Son of God to a claim of deity. That’s the way his Jewish listeners understood him — which is why they picked up stones to stone him — and he didn’t try to change their minds!

  2. Welcome Vonno,
    What I mean is that a title like Son of God stood for a network of ideas in Jesus’ day. Yes in the texts you mention in John there is explicit high christology. In both Jesus is claiming a unique sonship to the Father. There is a richness to this title – of a kingly role re Ps 2:7 and Is 42:1. Of a messianic role as God’s chosen annointed one of Israel; of a special and unique identity that is only gradually revealed [see Mark’s gospel for how Son of God is a theme that unpacked bit by bit from Jesus’ baptism until the centurion’s statement at the cross.]

    My point is that Jesus’ hearers did not immediately associate Son of God as shorthand for deity. They were monotheistic Jews after all. The term already had particular meanings.

    But there is a progression within the NT that deepen that understanding to include Jesus in the divine identity: as in Rom 1:3-4 Jesus divine identity is revealed in light of the resurrection. And his identity as the Son of God is linked to his role as saviour – Rom 5:8-10. To Galatians 4 where he as son enables believers to become sons. And in Philippians 2 where there is strong evidence that Paul is speaking of the pre-existence of the Son.

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