05 / 06
Bird Silhouette Bird Silhouette

Avoiding Exaggerated Claims

A Humanist blogger says exaggerated claims about Christianity creates atheists!

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, you’ve talked about exaggerated claims in the past. You’ve said, Don’t overstate the case. You don’t have to do that. Just give the facts. Don’t make exaggerated claims. It is one of the earliest things I remember you saying before you and I had a chance to meet. Well, this atheist has said the same thing in a blog – it is a humanist blog.[1] Dr. J. H. McKenna in the “Humanist Plus” blog says, “Many a Pastor Has Made Many a Humanist” due to poisoning, so to speak, their parishioners with exaggerated claims that turned out to be problematic. He starts out,

A number of Humanists and agnostics and atheists trace the origin of their religious skepticism to an over-reaching Pastor who made out-sized claims for the Bible or Christianity.

Exaggerated claims, once discovered as so, can produce a chink in the armor of faith, a chink that the arrow of inquiry may pierce, inserting doubt where once there was certainty.

Any thoughts on that opening salvo?

DR. CRAIG: Well, it is an interesting point. When I talked about not making exaggerated claims, I was speaking about apologetic modesty. That is to say, don't try to prove too much because if you set the bar that high you're probably not going to reach it and therefore it will look as though your claims are false. So if you say things like “There's more evidence for Jesus Christ than that Julius Caesar ever existed,” such a claim is so extravagant that if you fail to meet it then it will look as though you have failed in your effort to defend the historicity of Christ. Where, on the other hand, if you were to say something like, “The Gospels appear to be pretty reliable historical sources for the life of Jesus of Nazareth,” that much more modest claim is easier to establish and can give confidence then to your listener when you establish it well. You exceed the claim that you've made and thereby over-prove what you've modestly claimed. Here the danger of exaggerated claims is somewhat different. What this humanist is suggesting is that when you make exaggerated claims that give people this illusion of certainty that when they discover the truth that this can somehow pop their bubble and make them then fall into severe doubt. It's not as though they reduce the exaggerated claim to a more realistic claim, like to say, “It looks like there's good evidence for Jesus” (which would be a more modest and realistic claim). Instead, because their balloon has been popped, they lurch over to a kind of radical skepticism because the illusion of certainty that they had has been removed. I think he's alerting anyone to a real danger here that does psychologically seem to be the way people sometimes operate.

KEVIN HARRIS: I'm not sure about the motive of this blogger.

DR. CRAIG: I’m taking it at face value.

KEVIN HARRIS: Because he may be kind of spilling out his litany of things that he thinks are legitimate that should undermine the Christian faith.

DR. CRAIG: Well, then he would be making exactly this error that I'm talking about – because the exaggerated claim is false therefore the modest claim is false. And that's a huge mistake. Just because something isn't shown with certainty to be true doesn't imply in any way that it is not more probable than not that it is true. So if that's his gambit here, he's making the same mistake that the people he talks about have made.

KEVIN HARRIS: He gives some instances that he has personally run into of what started the chink in the armor and started a person down the path to deconversion. I actually have a story like this first one. He says, here's an example:

A given Pastor claims all biblical ideas are original to the Bible. As a ‘revelation,’  as a revealed message from God, the Pastor expects no less of the Bible, because something revealed must have been formerly concealed.

The example that I have is I talked to a girl once who was very upset when she heard in class that someone before Jesus said something along the lines of do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And that rocked her world. Well, why would it rock her world? Maybe Jesus is just affirming a truth that could be found in another culture? All good truth is God's truth?

DR. CRAIG: Exactly. And yet, as he says here, there are people like this girl who think that everything in the Bible needs to be original to the Bible and that the biblical authors could not have drawn upon sources for their ideas or had oral traditions that preceded them or been influenced by their culture and times which every scholar knows to be false. This is an exaggerated and false claim that this pastor apparently had made.

KEVIN HARRIS: Here's another one:

Or, another Pastor claims he knows the date of authorship for a given Bible book, but the Pastor’s date is off because university scholarship long ago disclosed the real date of authorship for that particular book is 70 years later, or even 700 years later (depending on the book).

If the congregant stumbles upon this university data, a very big hole may appear in the wound-proof vest of faith, and a skeptical arrow called ‘method in dating historical documents’ may lodge there.

I have to say again, I wonder if this is what so disturbed Bart Ehrman in that he had a particular idea of biblical inerrancy, wooden literalism, and so on, that got rocked when he went to the university and he lost . . . now, I'm only speculating.

DR. CRAIG: It had nothing to do with dating in his case. He claims that that isn't what really led to his agnosticism and abandonment of faith. He says it's the problem of evil, which is interesting because that's a philosophical problem not a New Testament historical problem. He says that it wasn't problems with the Gospels or errors in the Gospels that caused him to abandon faith. It was the problem of evil. But in regard to the question that the fellow raises here: a good illustration of that would be in the dating of the Pentateuch. Traditionally this has been associated with Moses, but now scholarship is completely open as to when the first five books of the Bible were finally composed and collected. Some think it could have been around the time of David and Solomon at the height of the monarchy. Others think that it may have been as recently as after the Jewish exile, after they returned from Babylon in the 500 BCs. Nobody really knows when the Pentateuch was finally compiled. It undoubtedly includes many ancient traditions, even preliterary traditions that were handed down orally before finally being written. But in terms of the date, nobody is certain as to exactly when the Pentateuch was finally put into writing and into its final form. This is important because what that means is interpretations of, for example, Genesis (which is what I'm working on now), which depend crucially on the date of Genesis, are thereby, I think, thrown into tremendous question. If your interpretation, for example, of the Garden of Eden is that this reflects Jewish temple worship, then that's going to depend upon when you think the Pentateuch was finally written. It may be that these traditions are so old that they antedate that time. So that puts a question mark behind your interpretation.

KEVIN HARRIS: Could Moses have had something to do with it?

DR. CRAIG: Oh, sure. These oral traditions can go all the way back to him and before.


Another example is the Pastor who declares that the Bible was infallibly reproduced, mark by mark, ink stain by ink stain, word for word, over thousands of years of scribal hand-copying (producing the aptly named manu-script).

Obviously, we know there are variations in the manuscripts.

DR. CRAIG: Sure.


A parishioner could somehow discover what scholars have long known: that none of the original biblical books survived, that none of the copies of biblical books date to the century in which the originals were written, and none of the copies agree word for word with other copies, meaning that ancient scribes made intentional alterations to the texts and also made simple copying errors.

I have to say, maybe he's educating humanists in this.

DR. CRAIG: But wait though, the error is the pastor's, not the humanist’s. The humanist is right here, and any educated Christian knows this. If you look at your English-language Bible, it has footnotes at the bottom of the page saying “other ancient sources say” and they give the textual variants. He is rightly indicting ignorance in the Christian Church and pastors who make these silly claims or naive laymen who innocently believe that the King James Version of the Bible is the way the original manuscripts read.

KEVIN HARRIS: The point I'm making is that it is true that we don't need to do exaggerated claims. This doesn't seem to be one of them. I wonder if he's educating . . . what I’m saying is I don't hear a lot of . . . most pastors seem to know this and most Christian laymen seem to know this about how in the manuscripts that there are footnotes in the Bible and things like this.

DR. CRAIG: Though he claims these are true stories, I admit that this one is really extreme. I think, as I say, anybody with an English-language Bible knows that there have been copyist errors and so forth. But the one about the dating or that there are no borrowed ideas included by the biblical authors, those I’ll bet are still prevalent among laypeople.

KEVIN HARRIS: Well, let's get down to this one about morality. He says,

Any given Pastor on any given Sunday may allege the uniqueness and superiority of Christian morality.

But then a congregant might eventually learn from scholars that a good bit of the Christian moral schema was adopted from ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Thereby an arrow’s tip glances the armor of belief, dinging it.

Greek and Roman?

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, that's a little odd, isn't it? I should have thought that he would think of Jewish sources for Christian morality – it is rooted in Judaism more than Greco-Roman moral schemas. But the point that you told earlier about the girl who was shaken because something similar to the Golden Rule had been uttered by other ethicists apart from Jesus – that would illustrate this sort of naivete.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. The superiority of Christian morality. How do we then approach the topic of morality because we've acknowledged that in God's world one doesn't even have to believe in God in order to act morally and recognize morality and things like that. We've beaten that dead horse. We have talked and talked about it.

DR. CRAIG: Well, on this one he seems to think that the chink in the armor is caused by seeing Christian immoralities, violence, persecution of other persons, religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, sexual molestation that has been in the news lately in Christianity. He says when you add up all of these immoralities then the claim of moral superiority flags. Now, when he said that I immediately thought to myself, I think, what you did: wait a minute – that's not what one meant by saying Christian morality is superior. One meant the ethical system of Christian morality is superior – that it identifies correctly goods and evils and moral duties and prohibitions. It isn't meant that Christians are morally superior to other people because, as you say, given our doctrine of sin we know how desperately far short we all fall of the ideal standards. But it is those standards that would represent the superiority of Christian morality.

KEVIN HARRIS: You can list all the perversions of Christianity and not list the version of Christianity that depicts what Christianity really is. I mean, we can list all the things that are failings, we can list the failures of Christians, but then avoid what Christ taught.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. So the phrase is ambiguous when he talks about the superiority of Christian morality.

KEVIN HARRIS: What about this one: “The same Pastor, in his moral mood, may warn that a society without God will devolve into tyranny, gross immorality, and violence.”

DR. CRAIG: Yes, there's some evidence for that. When you look at, for example, Soviet society in the aftermath of Stalin and other secular societies this often does happen. Now, what he points out is that the congregant may look at the world today and realize that the least religious nations (the most godless, I'm quoting here) are those in northern Europe such as Sweden, for example, and yet these also seem to be the most civil societies on the planet. What he fails to appreciate there is that Sweden has centuries of Lutheran cultural influence in it. This is not a non-Christian society in that sense. It is a society which lives on borrowed values from these centuries of Christianity that dominated this culture. So I think that's not really a fair example of the way a godless society will always function.

KEVIN HARRIS: He wraps it up and says,

Pastors, beware. Avoid excessive claims. Speak honestly. Otherwise you have only yourself to blame for shepherding portions of your flock into the swelling ranks of secular Humanism.

DR. CRAIG: It's good advice, and I would want to return the same advice to our humanist friends. Do not make excessive claims on behalf of humanism. For example, “There is no evidence for God.” That can be shattered fairly easily by showing some sort of evidence that there is a creator and designer of the universe. That might produce a chink in the humanist’s armor that could lead to serious doubts that might lead him down the path to Christian belief. Or how about this one: “Jesus of Nazareth never existed.” How many times have we heard that exaggerated claim made from people like Robert Price or Richard Carrier? That belief, too, can be devastated by an understanding of the historical credibility of the Gospels and extra-biblical sources for Jesus of Nazareth. Or how about this one from Christopher Hitchens: “Religion poisons everything.” Now that, if any claim is exaggerated, is one that really is over-the-top. Christianity has been the most positive influence for good within Western world history, being responsible for founding of universities, modern medicine and nursing, the elevation of women in society, literacy and education, the promotion of societal goods in the Third World. Despite all of its imperfections, Christianity has been a tremendous force for good in the history of humankind. Or finally, how about this one: “Christians are intellectually backward.” How many times have we heard atheists speak condescendingly of Christians? And that can easily be shattered when you encounter an Alvin Plantinga, N. T. Wright, Christopher Isham, and other brilliant philosophers, scientists, and historians who are clearly smarter than you are and yet have a deep Christian commitment.[2]


[2]                            Total Running Time: 18:50 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)