A Dilemma with the Trilemma
Jesus of Nazareth has always been a figure of controversy. For over two thousand years people have argued about what he did and who he was. The contentious activity surrounding his origin, activities, and identity grew after he suffered death by crucifixion under the rule of Pontius Pilate but this activity was by no means caused or immediately preceded by that event. Controversy surrounded Jesus from the very time of his conception. Of this controversy, he was well aware. While Jesus still walked the Earth, he famously asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The responses they provided to that question ran the gamut. Some people thought he was a good teacher, while others thought he led people astray. Some thought him insane or demon-possessed. Others considered him to be a prophet. Yet, his Apostle, Peter, knew that he was much more than a prophet and so much more than the son of a carpenter. When Jesus continued his line of questioning with his disciples by asking, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered with a truth revealed from Heaven: “You are the Christ.”
Even the wording of Jesus’ famous question is a source of controversy. Did Jesus ask of himself, as the gospel of Mark reports, “Who do people say that I am?” or did Jesus ask, as is reported in the gospel of Matthew, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is? If Jesus is the Christ, is such a discrepancy in phraseology even relevant? “Son of Man” is a messianic title. Mark and Matthew both make the matter abundantly clear: Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. Equally apparent in their enduring writings is that Jesus is a great moral teacher. That point is easy to accept for a great many people. The assertion that he is the Messiah is a tougher pill for some to swallow. The even greater assertion, which the gospel writers as a whole communicate, is that Jesus was God incarnate. That Jesus was, is, and will forever be the Lord of the Universe, is perhaps the toughest pill of all to swallow. Yet, this is exactly what the authors of the Biblical texts wrote. The affirmation of Jesus by many as a great moral teacher in conjunction with the corresponding insistence by the same that he was simply a man has served as a source of consternation for Christian thinkers. Apologist C.S. Lewis mostly famously stated the folly of this line of thinking in his 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. He did not intend to. . . . Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
For years this argument has been a favorite of pastors and Christian apologists. It’s short, simple, and logically unassailable.
Lewis’ argument takes the form of a hypothetical syllogism. Either Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. The Biblical witness makes it clear that he claims to be the Lord. If he’s not a liar and he’s not a lunatic, then Jesus must, therefore, be the Lord as he claims. No one, then, can accept that he is a great moral teacher without accepting him as Lord. Lewis’ argument puts people at a decision point: deny the plainly obvious (that Jesus was a great moral teacher) or accept that Jesus is Lord. Unfortunately, for the proponents of this argument, there is a dilemma with the trilemma. Skeptics and biblical critics have created an additional option to add to Lewis’ hypothetical syllogism, that Jesus was a legend. The trilemma has become a quadrilemma: Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, the Lord, or a legend. Further complicating the matter is that the “legend” option covers several disparate theories.
One theory is that Jesus of Nazareth was mythical – he did not truly exist as a historical person. Another theory is that the biblical text does not actually communicate that Jesus is God – the text has been misinterpreted over time in a way that has corrupted the true message of Christianity and distorted the true identity of Jesus. Yet another legend-oriented theory is that the extant biblical text is simply unreliable – while it’s true that the text presents Jesus as Lord, it simply isn’t true that he is. Ultimately, all of these theories are untenable. By examining each one, the legend option can be shown as faulty and not deserving of its place at the table in Lewis’ trilemma.
Jesus the Myth
The notion that Jesus never really existed is the least defensible of all the legend theories. Yet, it has become one of the most popular views among critics of the Christian faith…just not serious critics of the Christian faith. Certainly, any criticism of the Christian faith is “serious” in and of itself. Every critic who rejects Jesus as Lord suffers the same fate, whether he concluded that Jesus didn’t exist after watching a few homemade YouTube videos from ignorant internet infidels or he concluded that Jesus wasn’t God after careful and lengthy (i.e. “serious”) academic study. Those who engage in a serious critical study may indeed reject Jesus’ divinity but they almost never reject his historicity. Yet the popular notion that Jesus never existed prevails. “Online skeptic sites and atheists’ popular writings continue to repeat the charge.” They have repeated this charge so much that the belief that Jesus never existed has received its own name: “Mythicism.” Mythicism can be defined as “the claim that Jesus never lived or that the story of Jesus as told by Christians is an amalgamation of various ancient mystery religions.” Mythicism, though utterly ridiculous in the minds of even the most amateur Christian apologists, has recently required a substantial response from defenders of the Christian faith.
Whether a Mythicist claims that Jesus of Nazareth never existed or that the myth surrounding his divinity is actually derivative of that of pagan gods such as “Horus (or Osiris), Attis, Dionysus, Mithra, or Krishna of India,” a response to his Mythicism doesn’t require a deeply researched answer or a detailed refutation. An efficient, almost dismissive, a response is in order. Christian apologist William Lane Craig demonstrated the efficacy of such a response during three 2013 dialogues with scientist Lawrence Krauss on the subject of whether or not it is reasonable to believe in God. Krauss is an eminent theoretical physicist who holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and the author of the best-selling book A Universe from Nothing. He is also a vociferous atheist. During the course of his dialogues with Craig, Krauss stated:
“…the other thing that is important…is that there is nothing special about Jesus that’s any different than the other gods or any other fictional heroes for that matter. First of all, there’s no empirical evidence that he was divine—none, not one iota. In that sense he shares it with every other god that’s ever been proposed…Virgin birth: nothing special about Jesus. Look at all of these; they are all supposed to have been born of virgins…take Dionysus, the Greek god of wine versus Jesus, it is exactly the same. They were both born of the virgin mother, they’re fathered by the king of heaven, they returned from the dead, they transformed water into wine. In fact, you know, they talked about eating and drinking the flesh and blood of the creator…they were taken as liberator of mankind. That story has been told over and over again and this is just one of the most recent renderings; nothing special. And the resurrection is nothing special. The myth of resurrection’s been around since Osiris. You know, Osiris was one of the major Egyptian gods and used to be just the kings in Egypt would be resurrected when Osiris was resurrected but eventually in the new kingdom anyone can be resurrected with…Osiris (I was going to say with Jesus, but it doesn’t matter) if they followed the correct religious rituals; the same, the same nonsense.
Craig’s response to Krauss was one of simple incredulity.
“Well, what I wanted to say, Lawrence, is that your comparisons of Jesus of Nazareth with Dionysus and Osiris is based upon scholarship that is more than one hundred years out of date…I think you’ve been fed a lot of misinformation by skeptics and Internet infidel types that are really misleading you on…where historical Jesus scholarship is today. Let me explain two things about this, why this view is…Scholars in comparative religion and in the history of religions during the late 19th century ransacked the literature of ancient mythology looking for these kind of parallels to Jesus, and some tried to explain the origins of Christianity from these. That movement soon collapsed, however, primarily for two reasons. First of all, the parallels turned out to be spurious. When you look at these supposed parallels, between Dionysus and Jesus, or Osiris and Jesus, they just don’t hold up. Dionysus was not raised from the dead. Osiris, in the myths, lives on in the underworld. The, the pieces of his body were scattered and reassembled by his wife; he doesn’t rise from the dead. So, in fact, there is nothing in the ancient world comparable to belief in the resurrection of Jesus in these myths…. the second thing to be said about this, this myth theory is that there is no causal connection between these myths and these earliest disciples. These kinds of cults of dying and rising gods weren’t even present in first century Palestine. And it would be unthinkable that these original disciples of Jesus would have come to believe he was risen from the dead because somebody had said something about Osiris.
Krauss’ mouth was shut on the myth matter. Krauss presents himself, as do many Mythicists and skeptics, as someone who won’t believe claims without verifiable evidence. He demands proof. With a simple, short statement, Craig made Krauss (and by extension all Mythicists) look foolish for ignoring evidence which has been widely available for hundreds of years.
Despite his great learning, albeit in subjects unrelated to Comparative Religion, Krauss was repeating the hokum history that is Mythicism. The overwhelming majority of historical scholars put almost no stock into pagan god parallels nor are they remotely open to the idea that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t a historical figure. “The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the `Christ-myth’ theories” Robert Price, author of The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems is the only legitimate New Testament scholar known to hold to the position that Jesus never lived. New Testament Historian Bart Ehrman, who is himself a proponent of the legend option of the quadrilemma, has given perhaps the bluntest and most straightforward refutation of Mythicism: “The view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet.” Affirming Mythicism more or less puts one off of the planet where scholarship, liberal or conservative, is concerned. Mythicism essentially falls into the “tin foil hat” category of historical thought. So why has it enjoyed a resurgence in contemporary discourse? Ehrman’s literary pursuits provide some hint as to the answer to this question. He has dryly quipped, “In my writing, I try to alternate between trade books for general audiences, textbooks for college students, and serious scholarship for the six people in the world who care.” The tragic reality is that a great many skeptics are wholly uninterested in a responsible pursuit of historical truth where Jesus of Nazareth is concerned. It is for this reason that a dismissive, even satirical, response to Mythicism is in order.
Satirizing Mythicism is the route that has been taken by Pastor Hans Fiene, the founder of Lutheran Satire. In his popular “Horus Ruins Christmas” YouTube, Fiene has provided what is perhaps the most poignant explanation for the recent popularity of Mythicism:
“…I suppose it is strange that people who insist that they won’t believe anything without verifiable evidence are more than willing to believe anything without verifiable evidence as long as that thing can be used to mock the gospel. But we shouldn’t be surprised when people reject proof of Christ’s resurrection in favor of demonstrable lies that let them remain in unbelief. After all, Jesus did say, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
When attempting to refute Mythicism, learned Christian apologists may be hesitant to rely on satirical YouTube videos and dismissive responses. However, fighting fire with fire seems to be in order. It’s folly to refute to Tweet with a Facebook post and a Facebook post with a dissertation. Mythicism provides “140-character” support to the legend option. A “140-character” response to Mythicism takes the legs out from under that support.
Jesus the False God
Millions of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists would ardently deny that Jesus of Nazareth was a liar or a lunatic. They would also comfortably refer to him as “Lord”. Yet, when they refer to him as such, they engage in equivocation. When these Arian sects speak of Jesus as “Lord”, they do not mean to affirm that he is God incarnate. Instead, they believe that Jesus is a lesser divine being. To them, the “Lord” Jesus of biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity is a legend, a false god, a perversion of an apostate church (a church which they purport to have restored). These sects do not deny that the Bible provides an accurate account of the life and times of Jesus; rather, they deny that the biblical text teaches that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnation of the second person of the triune God. The adherents of these sects uniquely interpret scripture through the eyes of their founders or through those currently tasked with governing the affairs of their religious bodies. Addressing the legend claims of these sects involves both communicating a biblically faithful Christology and understanding the history of the Restoration Movement which spawned them (for there is little contention to be had with them where the historicity of the Bible is concerned).
Seth DunnThe Restoration Movement grew out of the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century. “The movement sought to restore the church and the ‘unification of all Christians in a single body patterned after the church of the New Testament.’” Such unification was not achieved; quite the opposite occurred. Out of the great religious fervor of the Great Awakening, heresy emerged. “One of the most remarkable phenomena in the religious life of the United States during the nineteenth century was the birth of several movements that so differed from traditional Christianity that they could well be called new religions. The largest of these were the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science.” Members of these Restorationist sects must deny, in order to embrace the tenets of their religions, that the church historic understood the Christ of Christianity for nearly 1700 years. “Mormonism was founded on the premise that the authority initially given to the apostles by Jesus Christ was lost until Joseph Smith restored true Christianity in 1830.” Mormons interpret scripture through the eyes of Smith and his successor prophets. “Christian Scientists accept the Bible only as interpreted by (founder) Mary Baker Eddy in her writings.” Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret the Bible through the distorted lens of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. In one way or another, each of these disparate sects claims that the Jesus of the Bible is the Jesus of their movement, a created being. He is enlightened, powerful, and even in some way divine but he is not “true God from true God” as the Nicene Creed states.
The Bible, as interpreted objectively, communicates an altogether different story. The very term “Lord” as used in the New Testament to refer to Jesus makes it clear that he is by no means a lesser god, an angelic being, or merely an enlightened human being. The authors of Putting Jesus in His Place state the matter as follows:
“Anyone who has read the New Testament through even once knows that, -although it calls Jesus ‘God’ only occasionally, it frequently calls him ‘Lord’-hundreds of times, in fact. Many readers of the Bible have the mistaken impression, though, that the title Lord as applied to Jesus has a lesser significance than God-as though when the Bible calls Jesus Lord it means something like ‘almost but not quite God.’ Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
In the religious context of first-century Judaism, “Lord” was the highest designation that a Jew could use for deity. The practice of Jews in the 1st-Century (and during the intertestamental period) was to use the term “Lord” in place of the Old Testament term “Yahweh”. When the Jewish authors of the New Testament used the Greek word “κύριος” (translated “Lord” in English) to describe Jesus, they were ascribing to him equality with Yahweh. This is demonstrated by numerous allusions to God in the Old Testament which are made in the New Testament and which place Jesus in the place of Yahweh. It should be clear to objective, informed readers of the biblical text that the New Testament’s ardently monotheistic Jewish authors believed that Jesus was God and were attempting to communicate as much. “Across the New Testament…in the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles, we find writers calling Jesus ‘Lord’ in contexts that identify or equate him with the Lord (Yahweh). The basic confession of early Christianity that “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11) turns out to entail the most astonishing and radical claim that any first-century Jew might have made: that the crucified man, Jesus of Nazareth, was Jehovah.”
It is ironic, then, that a Restorationist sect that claims to be “Jehovah’s Witnesses” (the Watch Tower) has translated the Bible in such a way as to deny that Jesus is the God. Against the Judgment of every credentialed Bible translation committee on planet earth, the Watchtower’s own anonymous Biblical translation committee has rendered John 1:1, in defiance of the rules of Greek Grammar, as “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” This mistranslation indicates truthfully that Jesus is a separate person from God the Father but denies his status as God the Son. In doing so, the Watch Tower frustrates the careful attempt of the author of John to communicate the true nature of Jesus’ divinity. John used precise word order to stress that Jesus has all the divine attributes that the Father has and yet is not the Father. This does not compute with Watch Tower dogma. The Watch Tower’s mistranslation is clearly done out of its own prejudicial presuppositions. The same goes for the Arian assertions of Mormons and Christian Scientists. Rather than restoring the true church, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian scientists have created a legendary Jesus of their own, a fictional abomination of nineteenth-century religious controversy.
Jesus the Man (Not the God-Man)
“Dead men don’t rise from the dead”. Those holding to this presupposition will prima facie deny the veracity of the New Testament given its claims that Jesus rose from the grave. Thus, their quest for the historical Jesus will never discover a divine Jesus. This is methodological folly. “Less cautious historians, forgetting that history is the study, not of repeatable events as in physics and chemistry, but of unrepeatable events like Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, declare that we can indeed go further and that we can reach a clear negative judgment: we can be quite sure that nothing whatever happened to Jesus’ body at Easter, except that it continued to decompose. Dead people don‘t rise, therefore Jesus didn’t either.” Both the New Testament gospels and epistles abound with claims of the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus. The authors of these texts claim not only that Jesus came back to physical life at a point in history but that all people will experience a similar physical, bodily resurrection in the future. Despite various claims to the contrary (that the resurrection of Christ was meant as spiritual or otherwise symbolic), the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a serious Biblical claim that must be addressed. Additionally, the Christology of Jesus is a serious Biblical claim that must be addressed. That Jesus was raised from the dead does not in and of itself, indicate that he is God incarnate. That Jesus claimed to be God incarnate does. That he rose from the grave solidifies that lofty claim. Asserting that its supernatural accounts of Jesus’ life of are legend denies the essential claims of the New Testament. One can make such an assertion while simultaneously holding to the position that Jesus did, in fact, exist. Such a claimant doesn’t make Jesus out to be a liar or a lunatic, such a claimant makes Jesus’ earlier followers out to be such (especially the writers of the New Testament). At first blush, it may appear that debating textual criticism is the best way to engage with such a legend critic. However, it is not. His theological presuppositions, namely his anti-supernaturalism, must first be challenged.
Obviously, the claim that God could do anything (whether it be raising someone from the dead or causing the wind to blow) requires that God exist. If there is no God, then He can’t be Jesus. Thus, Jesus can’t be God. Neither can God have raised Jesus from the dead. What’s the point, then, if the New Testament authors lied about or were unclear in their reporting of the resurrection and Christological claims of Jesus? If it’s impossible for such claims to be true, are apparent discrepancies in their accounts really worth exploring? The answer is no. The question that must first be answered is, “Does God Exist?” For a Christian apologist to argue with an atheist that the New Testament does not present a legendary Jesus, he must first show that nature does not testify to a legendary God. To show this, the Christian apologist can turn to cosmological, ontological, teleological, and axiological arguments for the existence of the “god” of classical theism. Only when the atheistic legend theorist is convinced that such a “god” can exist can he be shown that the god of classical theism is actually revealed in the triune God of the Bible. That the atheist denies the existence of God indicates that he is stuck in a mire of futile “speculations.” If one is to wrestle with a pig, it is wise to first give him a bath.
An interesting example of this tactic occurred in 2011 at the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpart forum. Numerous biblical scholars gathered at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to debate the proposition “Can we trust the Bible on the Historical Jesus?” The headline speaker for the con side of the debate was skeptical New Testament Scholar, Bart Ehrman. Ehrman, relying on his extensive scholarship and commanding rhetoric, spoke at length in support of the legend theory, proclaiming over and over that the Bible could not be trusted on the historical Jesus. He was challenged by evangelical scholar Ben Witherington. Under cross-examination from Ehrman, Witherington responded to Ehrman’s rhetoric with an anecdote from the previous day’s lunch. “Didn’t you say to me over lunch yesterday, ‘People Don’t Rise from the Dead.’?” That told the forum’s audience all it needed to know about the historical starting point of Ehrman, who is agnostic with atheist leanings. For Ehrman and those like him, the New Testament story of Jesus is not true because it can’t be.
Yet, it’s not sufficient to only expose the faulty presuppositions of legend theory proponents. The merits of the arguments against the credibility of the New Testament authors and the rest of Christ’s early followers command a response. One of the best responses is that these followers seemed to have genuinely believed the message of the text. “Even skeptical New Testament scholars admit that the earliest disciples at least believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In fact, they pinned nearly everything on it.” Jesus’ earliest followers believed the Christian message, even at the risk of their lives. This begs the question, for the proponent of the legend option, “Do the extant New Testament texts contain the same Christian message which Jesus’ earliest followers believed?” In other words, can the textual transmission of the New Testament be trusted? The evidence indicates that it can. “The text of the “New Testament is 99.5% textually pure. In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words), and none affects any significant doctrine…The purity of (the) text is of such a substantial nature that nothing (Christians) believe to be true, and nothing (Christians) are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by (textual) variants.” The New Testament portrays events recounted by sincere believers that were entirely possible under a theistic worldview. This does not necessitate their truth but neither does it necessitate that the incarnate God of the New Testament is a fabrication, impossibility, or legend. What it does necessitate is that the claims of Jesus should be sincerely considered.
Returning to the Trilemma
Ultimately, legend theorists are unsuccessful in providing another viable option in Lewis’ hypothetical syllogism. Jesus did exist. Jesus believed that He was God incarnate. The extant biblical text is a reliable, plausible transmission of what Jesus and his earliest followers believed about the Christian message. Lewis’ questions must be considered anew. Was Jesus a liar? No. Was Jesus a lunatic? No. Is Jesus Lord? He indeed is. To recognize his wise teachings is to recognize his unique authority to present them as authoritative. Jesus the legend exists only in the minds of skeptics. Jesus Christ the Lord exists in the pages of the New Testament and in Heaven at the right hand of God the Father, making intercession for His saints until the time for His triumphant return comes to pass.
[Contributed by Seth Dunn]
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 Reed, David. Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Subject by Subject. Kindle Edition. Baker Books, 2011.
 Christian Reformed Church in North America . “Nicene Creed.” Christian Reformed Church . 2017. https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/nicene-creed (accessed April 17, 2017).
 Bowman, Robert J, Ed Komoszewski, and Darrell L. Bock. Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ. Kindle Edition. Kregel Publications, 2007. (Kindle Locations 1701-1702)
 This term is often rendered as “Jehovah” in English Bibles. For the purposes of this work, “Yahweh” and “Jehovah” can be understood to be synonymous.
 ibid (Kindle Locations 1878-1880)
 Yes, this is another “tin-foil hat” implication.
 Dunn, Seth. “Witnessing to the Watchtower: And the Word was ???” Pulpit & Pen. July 30, 2016. http://pulpitandpen.org/2016/07/30/witnessing-to-the-watchtower-and-the-word-was/ (accessed April 17, 2017).
 Wallace, Daniel B. “Chapter 6: Exegetical Insight.” In Basics of Biblical Greek, by William B. Mounce, 27-28. Zondervan, 2009.
 Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of Son of God V3: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Kindle Edition. Fortress Press. (p. 685).
 First Corinthians 15:20, Romans 8:29, Revelation 20:13
 Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of Son of God V3: Christian Origins and the Question of God. (p. 718).
 Ibid (p. 83)
 John 8:58
 John 2:19-22
 Bart Ehrman is a prime example of one.
 By this I mean a Christian engaging in apologetics, not a professional or credential “Christian apologist”
 Romans 1:18-23
 2017 Greer-Heard Point Counter Point Forum. “Can We Trust the Bible on the Historical Jesus?” http://greerheard.com. http://greerheard.com/wp/past-events/can-we-trust-the-bible-on-the-historical-jesus/ (accessed April 18, 2017).
 Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. (p. 4)
 Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Crossway Books, 2008. (p. 387)
 Koukl, Greg. “Is the New Testament Text Reliable?” Stand to Reason. February 04, 2013. https://www.str.org/articles/is-the-new-testament-text-reliable#.WPZEFNLyvcs (accessed April 18, 2017).