One critic posting on my comments pages recently explained why he didn’t believe in Jesus. The argument he offered looked logically constructed and was presented with a “slam dunk” air. It was just one argument, though I’m sure he must have many more, but he presented it as if this was a sufficient reason to reject Christianity. The argument is based on the New Testament statement from Christ when He is discussing the events of the last days, and says, “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34, also see Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32). Here is the argument, as presented:
I’m a pretty good reader, and I think I know exactly what Jesus meant when he said (for example) that the judgement would arrive before his listeners’ generation passed away. He meant that it would happen when he said it would happen, and since it didn’t happen then, he was wrong, and because he was wrong he was not (and is not) God.
Boom. One verse that is an apparent mistake, and now he can handily conclude that Jesus is not divine. When I read this, I was disappointed. The author obviously has an education and prides himself on logic and intelligence, but the argument, as presented, shows no apparent effort to understand and interact with Christian responses to the problems in this verse. It shows no desire to consider the reasons why Jesus might still be the Son of God in spite of confusion about one verse. Five seconds on Google would present him with reasonable Christian defenses of this problem. One quick Google search brought up one common response which explains that the generation of “this generation” was the generation that would be around when the prophecies of Matthew 24 begin to occur. Possible. But there are other approaches to consider, including discussions of what is meant by “generation” and the possibility of human error in recording and transmitting the statement. In any case, I was both saddened and frustrated by his easy argument for rejecting Jesus. I’m sure he has more than that, but it’s frustrating to see seemingly lazy arguments with apparent lack of serious research presented as if they represented a serious and decisive victory, as if no plausible response had ever been offered by the other side.
In claiming to “know exactly what Jesus meant” and in claiming that Jesus must be wrong since his literal reading does not appear to perfectly conform to his expectations, the author reveals a simplistic and rather “fundamentalist” attitude about the scriptures. It’s an outlook infused with numerous hidden assumptions that can result in unrealistic expectations that are easily burst, resulting in quick loss of faith for unprepared believers who finally encounter, say, geologic evidence for the earth’s age, evidence of abundant human influence and error in the scriptures, or the many other complexities of faith. It’s a danger that many ill-prepared Latter-day Saints face as well.
Now imagine that somebody, let’s say a former Christian priest and religious instructor, took that argument and published it in a Big List with dozens of other arguments, all claiming to be carefully researched slam-dunk arguments against Christianity but all showing a lack of familiarity with actual Christian scholarship and the vigorous defenses that have been offered to the arguments. That Big List would be offered as his shocking reasons for departing Christianity. Each argument might have excellent refutations, but readers of the Big List would have no idea, and ill-prepared Christians might be swayed. That would be tragic.
That’s pretty much how I feel about the CES Letter by a former LDS member who offers a Big List of reasons why he left the Church. It’s filled with dozens of assertions and seemingly slam-dunk arguments, but, as Daniel Peterson observed in his recent FAIR Conference presentation on the CES Letter, shows no familiarity with the abundant research and scholarship in many of the areas he touches upon. It occasionally reveals a simplistic, fundamentalist outlook, in which human error, uncertainty, and complexity are not tolerated. The many evidences for things like the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham are treated as nonexistent. Not merely inadequate or not convincing, but as though there was nothing there at all, as Daniel Peterson properly observes. The evidence is ignored, huge bodies of scholarship are rendered invisible, and answers that a few moments on Google could offer appear to have not entered into the vast research said to be behind the list of arguments. It’s tragic, painful, puzzling, and quite unnecessary.
Feel free to disagree and choose your reasons for believing or not, but don’t pretend that it’s all a slam-dunk without any arguments or evidence on the other side. There is evidence, there are interesting and sometimes very convincing arguments on the other side, and people exposed to the Big List at least should know that such things exist.