Why Do Many Western People Doubt the Accuracy of the Gospels?

There is an old saying that “familiarity breeds contempt.” The Gospels are so familiar in Western culture, and were so deeply influential in its shaping, that Westerners often fail to think about them objectively. Because they are so close and familiar, most people don’t value them enough even to know what they contain. In his book Ring of Truth, Oxford scholar and longtime friend of C. S. Lewis, J. B. Phillips, wrote:

So long as a man confines his ideas of Christ to a rather misty hero figure of long ago who died a tragic death, and so long as his ideas of Christianity are bounded by what he calls the Sermon on the Mount (which he has almost certainly not read in its entirety since he became grown-up), then the living truth never has a chance to touch him. This is plainly what has happened to many otherwise intelligent people. Over the years I have had hundreds of conversations with people, many of them of higher intellectual calibre than my own, who quite obviously had no idea of what Christianity is really about. I was in no case trying to catch them out: I was simply and gently trying to find out what they knew about the New Testament. My conclusion was that they knew virtually nothing. This I find pathetic and somewhat horrifying. It means that the most important Event in human history is politely and quietly bypassed. For it is not as though the evidence had been examined and found unconvincing: it had simply never been examined.

But beyond the tendency to take the Gospels for granted, many Western people unknowingly reflect the unexamined assumptions of their generation. Unaware of their bias, their denial of the reliability of the gospel tradition is usually much stronger than the reasons they give for doing so. (See the ATQ article Recent Media Have Claimed Jesus Christ Is Legendary: Is It True?)

The emotional power of untested assumptions reflects some of the natural inclinations that the apostle Paul wrote about in his first New Testament letter to the Corinthians.

“But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one”
(1 Corinthians 2:14-15 NKJV).

The inability of unbelievers to recognize their bias is a striking example of spiritual blindness. But along with a spiritual blindness that unconsciously distorts reality so that truth becomes invisible even when in plain view, there may be an element of intentional hostility (Matthew 13:11-17; Romans 1:18-22).

Yet Christians are in no position to “judge” modern unbelievers who seem to grasp at straws to avoid the truth. They are probably no worse people than we are. The New Testament makes it clear that apart from God’s grace, everyone—including Peter (Matthew 16:23), Paul (Acts 9:1-6), Jesus’ own family (Mark 3:21; John 7:5), Jesus’ townspeople (Mark 6:1-5), and others who should have known better (John 20:24-29) were inflicted with spiritual blindness and infected with doubt.

For many people in the West, Christianity has become a convenient scapegoat. This shouldn’t surprise us. Just as pagan intellectuals like Julian the Apostate once blamed the gospel for the deterioration of the Roman Empire, unbelieving Western intellectuals today blame Christian faith either directly or indirectly for the Western cultural failures and offenses of the past 2,000 years. The world’s hostility toward Christ isn’t incidental, and the same hatred that was directed toward Him and His message can be expected to be directed against the genuine story of His life, death, and resurrection.

See the ATQ article What Are Some Arguments Used to Downplay the Significance of the Gospels?

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