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Comparing Jesus to Another Purported Holy Man

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismIn discussing religion with Christians, there seems to be this blind spot about the vast array of different religious beliefs out there. Many seem to see religion as a dichotomy - either Christianity is true, or religion in general is false. In many of their arguments, they just don't seem to even consider other religions (Pascal's wager is an obvious example of this blind spot). It results in many of their arguments being special pleading, but since they seem to be so unaware/dismissive of other religions, I'm not sure they even realize it's special pleading. But the end result is still that the arguments aren't particularly persuasive.

So, for some context, let's consider a different purported holy man besides Jesus. This man began a ministry and attracted many followers. According to his followers, he was prophesied in scriptures, and was God in the flesh. They claim he performed many miracles, including healings, levitation (somewhat similar to Christ's walking on water), making objects appear, changing water into other drinks (very similar to turning water into wine), physically emitting brilliant light (similar to Jesus in Matthew 17:2), and other miracles less analogous to Jesus (such as being in more than one place at the same time). His followers believe he will come again (through reincarnation). People who had never met him personally had visions of him, and he purportedly continued to visit his followers in visions after his death. There are many claimed eye-witnesses to his miracles and these visions, and a written account of his life, including many of the miracles he performed.

Now, lest you think I'm referring to some ancient figure whose reputation grew legendary over generations, this man was born in 1926, and he only died in 2011. His biography was written while he was still alive, and many of the eye witness testimonies are available on the Internet (such as here). His name was Sathya Sai Baba, and he still has devoted followers.

And I chose Sai Baba rather arbitrarily, because I've just happened to learn of him recently. There are many other purported holy men I could use for comparison, such as Ram Bahadur Bamjan, believed by some to be the reincarnation of the Buddha; Sun Myung Moon, who claimed to be a messiah continuing Jesus's work and who wrote new scriptures (i.e. Exposition of the Divine Principle); Joseph Smith, a prophet who claimed to have visions of Jesus and visits from angels and who wrote his revelations into new scriptures (i.e. the Book of Mormon); Apollonius of Tyana, a contemporary of Jesus whose paragraph long mini biography is practically identical to Jesus's, but substituting Roman gods for the Jewish God (of course there are plenty of differences in the details); and countless others (there's also a long list of people claiming to be the second coming of Christ). And let's not forget about urban legends, such as those found on Snopes, to show how untrue stories can spread very quickly to become believed by large numbers of people.

Now, if you're like me, you probably don't believe the miraculous claims about Sai Baba or any of these other purported holy men (or the urban legends on Snopes). There are far more likely explanations to their claimed miracles than actual divine powers. But it provides context for the early Christians. All these holy men did exist. Their followers did and still do sincerely believe the miraculous stories and claims. Their scriptures have been preserved faithfully. Jesus is just one of many such holy men.

As one more bit of context, consider the religious landscape at the time Christianity was getting started. The early converts to Christianity would have been Jews or Roman pagans. Many Jewish people already believed in the God of the Old Testament and in prophecies of a coming Messiah, so the challenge in their conversion would have been convincing them that Jesus was the fulfillment of these prophecies. The Roman pagans already believed in many gods and miracles, so the challenge in converting them would have been limiting them to believing in one God. The early Christians wouldn't have been trying to win over skeptical atheists and agnostics, or people who doubted the supernatural in general. For someone who grew up believing in the labors of Hercules, it wouldn't have been too difficult to believe that someone else walked on water or turned water into wine.

It's one thing to claim to have writings that faithfully represent the beliefs of a religious sect, or even the overall life and times of a religious leader. It's quite another to claim that these writings are completely true, including all the divine claims and miracles. Jesus and Sai Baba can't both be God, so for any arguments about the divine aspects of Jesus and the New Testament to be convincing, you shouldn't be able to turn around and use similar arguments on Sai Baba and his biography, or any of these other religious leaders to prove their divinity. If an argument could be used to claim the divinity of both, then it must be a flawed or incomplete argument (unless you do think they're both God).

To put it another way, when listening to the arguments from apologists, you would do well to consider how these arguments might sound if being applied to a different holy man like Sathya Sai Baba, and whether you would still find them convincing.


As a side note, this entry began life as an introduction to a review of Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. I'm not sure if I'll be able to bring myself to finish the book and the review, but I didn't want this intro to languish in my drafts folder, so I figured I'd adapt it into a stand alone post. Just in case I never get around to a full review, I'll say that Strobel's book isn't very convincing. The apologists he interviews engage in a lot of these special pleading type arguments. And despite Strobel's touting of his journalism credentials, the book is very biased, with practically no expert rebuttal to the apologist's claims. If you're interested, here's a pretty good review on The Secular Web:

The Rest of the Story, by Jeffery Jay Lowder

Updated 2019-04-19: Slight change to wording in introduction


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