Did Jesus Hold False Beliefs? William Lane Craig Suggests So!

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It is becoming increasingly popular for theologians to accept the idea that Jesus, because of his human nature, erred in what he taught and believed about the Old Testament. Recently, well-known apologist William Lane Craig made some interesting comments on this issue in response to a non-Christian’s question about Jesus’ belief in the historicity of the book Genesis. He began by stating:

When people ask me what unanswered questions I still have, I tell them, “I don’t know what to do with these Old Testament stories about Noah and the ark, the Tower of Babel, and so on.1

This is a strange statement considering Craig’s many years as an apologist. Has he really never taken the time to carefully study through the book of Genesis given that it is foundational to all biblical doctrine and that it often faces attack from secular society? But seeing that Craig is an old earth creationist and has already accommodated for secular thinking, it is no wonder that he struggles with what to do with the rest of Genesis.

Did Jesus Hold False Beliefs?

However, most concerning was his response to Jesus’ view of Genesis. Craig responded:

Your claim is that since Jesus evidently believed in the historicity of these stories, then if we allow that these narratives are not historical, we allow that Christ has erred. But what are the Christological implications of that?

Now that’s a really good question which theologians need to explore! Did Jesus hold false beliefs in his human consciousness? Did he think the sun goes around the Earth? Did he think the Earth was at the center of the universe? Did he think there were any stars beyond those we can see at night? I’m not going to try to answer those questions, but I think they’re worth asking. Did God stoop so low in condescending to become a man that he took on such cognitive limitations that Jesus shared false beliefs typically held by other ordinary first century Jews? Since I have good reason to believe in his deity, as explained above, I would sooner admit that Jesus could hold false beliefs (that ultimately don’t matter) rather than deny his divinity. Rather than impose on him our a priori conceptions of what divinity implies, we need to be open to learning from the Gospels what the incarnation entailed.

It should be no surprise that Craig is open to these questions (which theologians have answered before) since he has already adopted a limited view of inerrancy.2 Nevertheless, in understanding these issues, it is important to recognize that in the incarnation, not only did Jesus retain His divine nature, He also took on a human nature (see Philippians 2:5–8). The incarnation should be viewed as an act of addition to and not as an act of subtraction from Jesus’ nature. Craig’s objection to the validity of Jesus’ belief in the historicity of the creation account is too quick to downplay the divine status of Jesus in relation to His knowledge of creation. This overlooks whether the divinity of Christ meant anything in terms of an epistemological relevance to His humanity, and raises the question of how the divine nature relates to the human nature in the one person. We are told on several occasions, for example, that Jesus knew what people were thinking (Matthew 9:4, 12:25), a clear reference to His divine attributes. Jesus also spoke of the things he witnessed and experienced in heaven prior to His incarnation (Luke 10:18; John 17:5). In His incarnation Jesus did not cease to be God, or cease in any way to have the authority and knowledge of God. Rather, His divine nature dwelt in a human body (see John 1:1–3, 14).

The fatal flaw in the idea that Jesus’ teaching contained error is that if Jesus in His humanity claimed to know more or less than He actually did then such a claim would have profound ethical and theological implications concerning Jesus’ claims of being the truth (John 14:6), speaking the truth (John 8:45), and bearing witness to the truth (John 18:37). The critical point in all of this is that for Jesus to save us from our sins He had to be sinless, which includes never telling a falsehood. Scripture is clear that Jesus was sinless in the life He lived, keeping God’s law perfectly (Luke 4:13; John 8:29; 15:10; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). If Jesus in his teaching had pretended to have more knowledge than He actually had, then this would have been sinful. The Bible tells us that we who teach “shall receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Jesus made statements such as, “The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works” (John 14:10) and “I am . . . the truth” (John 14:6). Now if Jesus claimed to teach these things and then taught erroneous information (for example, regarding creation), His claims would be falsified; in other words, He would be sinning, disqualifying Him from being our Savior. Jesus would be teaching the falsehood that He knows something that He actually does not know. Once Jesus makes the astonishing claim to be speaking the truth, He had better not be teaching mistakes. In His human nature, because Jesus was sinless and the “fullness of the Godhead” dwelt in Him (Colossians 2:9), everything Jesus taught was true. Jesus taught that the Old Testament Scripture was truth (John 17:17) and, therefore, so was His teaching on creation.

Jesus and Genesis

In the article Craig states that Jesus’ use of Mark 10:6–9 and Matthew 19:4–5 are only theological. Yet this is clearly not the case. Jesus used Genesis in a straightforward, historical manner to settle a dispute over the question of divorce, since it is grounded in the creation of the first marriage. The passage is also striking in understanding Jesus’s use of Scripture as He attributes the words spoken as coming from the Creator (Matthew 19:4). Craig also commented on Jesus’ use of the Flood (which he believes was local):

So your only example of any force is Luke 17:26–7 [sic], where Jesus says, “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them.” But this reference, like Jesus’ reference to Jonah, is compatible with citing a story to make one’s point. I might say to someone “Just as Robinson Crusoe had his man Friday to assist him, so I have my wife Jan to help me,” without thinking to commit myself to the historicity of Robinson Crusoe!

Does Craig really believe that Genesis is fiction (as Robinson Crusoe is)? This overlooks how Jesus understood and treated Genesis. In Luke 17:26–27 Jesus does not just refer to the individuals as historical but cites parts of the narrative (such as eating, drinking, marrying, and entering the Ark) as real historical events. The Flood is not just a story with a point as Jesus uses it as analogy with the judgement at the end of age, which will also be a worldwide historical event (not local; c.f. Matthew 24:37–39). Likewise, Craig’s comparison of Jesus’ use of the Jonah “story” to make his point also undermines Jesus’ understanding of Jonah (Matthew 12:39–41). Jesus did not see Jonah as a story or legend; the meaning of the passage would lose its force, if it were. How could Jesus’s death and Resurrection serve as a sign if the events of Jonah did not take place? Furthermore, Jesus says that the men of Nineveh will stand at the last judgement because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, but, if the account of Jonah is a story or symbolic, how can the men of Nineveh stand at the last judgement?

Conclusion

One of the reasons that people believe Jesus erred in His teaching is that they want to syncretize secular thinking with the Bible. Many old-earth creationists and theistic evolutionists inconsistently reject the supernatural creation of the world and a worldwide Flood, yet nevertheless they accept the reality of the virgin birth, and the miracles and Resurrection of Christ, which are equally at odds with the truth claims of the secular scientific majority. When it comes to Jesus’ view on creation, if we claim Him to be Lord, then what He believed should be extremely important to us. How can we have a different view from the view of our Creator and Savior?

Footnotes

  1. See William Lane Craig, “Should OT Difficulties Be an Obstacle to Christian Belief?,” Reasonable Faith, April 16, 2017, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/should-ot-difficulties-be-an-obstacle-to-christian-belief.
  2. See William Lane Craig, “What Price Biblical Errancy?,” Reasonable Faith, July 1, 2007, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/what-price-biblical-errancy.

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