by George Brahm
A lot of noise has been made over ‘cancel culture’, a phenomenon that involves digging up someone’s past transgressions–often no more than an immature tweet or two from their teenage years–before socially ostracizing them and causing the destruction of both their lives and livelihoods. Not even death can save you from cancellation, as George Washington found out. And given the fact that none of us are perfect, all of us–every person to ever walk the earth–is a potential target of cancel culture.
Well, every person except one. According to Christian apologist Tom Gilson, there did exist a man whose character was not just better than that of anyone in history, literature, or legend, but it was impeccable. It was perfect. That might sound ridiculous. In fact, that might sound too good to be true. Not really, Gilson says, because a careful study of this man’s character as presented by His biographers reveals not only that His story is true, but that it’s too good to be false.
To help his readers see Jesus through new eyes as he himself did, Gilson invites us to consider Jesus’ uniqueness, not merely through His well-known teachings or popular miracles, but through what He didn’t say and didn’t do; for Jesus did not say or do various things that great moral teachers and powerful leaders tend to do. I will give no more than an overview to cure some of your growing incredulity in light of Gilson’s tall claims. (Too good to be false? Is he for real?) For the full experience, do purchase a copy of the book from DeWard Publishing Company. If you wish to skip the summary and just read my thoughts about the book, click here.
Part I of the book is dedicated to discussing Jesus’ uniqueness. Consider the first in Gilson’s list of the many things that makes Jesus unique, displayed through something He never did: He never used His powers for His own benefit, but always utilized them out of love for others. He is the lone exception to Lord Acton’s dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely; no historical figure with anything close to the power that Jesus possessed remained uncorrupted by it, and no writer of myth or fiction has been able to produce a realistic and compelling character who is both all-good and all-powerful. In fact, the one opportunity every hero would’ve used his power to save himself was the one time Jesus refused to use His power; He gave up His life by His own volition for no reason but His love for others. In Jesus, perfect love is no longer an unapproachable ideal; He embodied it fully, and in this, He is truly unique.
Or consider Jesus’ unique leadership style. It is undeniably true that Jesus was and continues to be perceived as a remarkable leader. Billions continue to follow Him over 2,000 years since He walked the earth. Nevertheless, He possessed a number of unique characteristics, every one of which would be considered unthinkable in a modern model leader. He never admitted to making a mistake, much less learning from them. He rarely ever gave a straight answer to His questioners. He never cared about contrary opinions; if you disagreed with Him, He’d dismiss you as being mistaken without giving it a second thought. Any leader who possesses any of these qualities would be dismissed as an incompetent jerk, but Christ was treated as the most loving, humble, and trustworthy human being ever to walk the earth. In this, He is truly unique.
Gilson talks about five other unique traits that I will not elaborate on: Jesus’ remarkable brilliance in both the intellectual and emotional spheres; Jesus’ unique appeal to His own authority in comparison to the other teachers of His day; Jesus’ unique success at undertaking what was literally a worldwide and world-changing mission; the uniqueness of Jesus’ love in calling imperfect humans His ‘friends’; and Jesus’ unique claims to and demonstrations of His deity.
In sum, Gilson concludes that Jesus lived “the one completely perfect human life”; so perfect that we no longer can give the oft-cited excuse, “But nobody’s perfect, right?” It also shuts down the objection that Christianity is an opiate that comforts; in Christ, we find a uniquely perfect character that ought to leave us terrified.
A skeptic, however, might come back and ask, “Doesn’t all this matter only if the stories you have appealed to are true? What reason do you have to be confident that they aren’t just legends?” Part II of the book–titled ‘Too Good To Be False’–is Gilson’s response.
As must be expected from him if you’ve kept up so far, Gilson does not tread the traditional paths taken by those who dispute the skeptic’s conclusions. Rather, he claims that Gospels accounts themselves, considered with “a little bit of common sense”, show that the skeptical conclusion that the Gospels are fictions can and must be dismissed.
First, he sets out two simple facts that both believers and skeptics agree on:
– There is a story of Jesus that is presented in the four Gospels.
– This story has a backstory; one that explains how it came to be.
Believers and skeptics differ on what this backstory is. Christians believe that the story of Jesus comes from a combination of two first-hand accounts (Matthew and John) and two second-hand accounts (Mark and Luke). Given that these eyewitnesses are close enough to the story, Christians consider them reliable and thus trust their account of Jesus’ life.
But skeptics disagree. According to them, Gilson says, “the Gospels are a hodgepodge, compiled by unknown authors who never knew Jesus and probably didn’t know any of his followers either…[T]he whole [process by which the Gospels were compiled] was overrun with processes guaranteed to utterly distort the truth.” To avoid the charge of exaggeration, he quotes a slew of skeptics who hold to this view. For instance, the most prominent among them, Bart Ehrman, claims that the story of a dying and rising spiritual Messiah was made up by a bunch of emotionally distraught disciples after their rabbi’s death. This story was then ‘scrambled’ through something like a Telephone Game as it was transferred from one source to another, before it finally landed in the form we read in the Gospels. The believer and the skeptic can’t both be right. Either the story of Jesus in the Gospels is true, or it is highly distorted and therefore isn’t true. So who gets the backstory right?
To answer this question, Gilson walks us back to the utterly unique character of Jesus–his possessing the unique combination of maximal power, love, integrity, and humility–somethimg that no fuction writer in history was able to accomplish. For such a character to be developed in a consistent manner via something like a Telephone Game is so unlikely that, per Gilson, it “would be a greater miracle than Jesus’ resurrection.” Furthermore, if Jesus’ story were one that was purely invented, it would be a terrible one to invent. No fiction writer has ever succeeded at creating a compelling character with zero potential for character development; one who remains perfect from start to end. Yet, Jesus is such a character, and He is perhaps the most compelling character in all literature. Are we really to believe that a few first century unknowns pulled this feat off via a Telephone Game? Or are we to pick the more plausible option, that four first century laymen actually wrote down what they saw and heard? Or consider the difficulty and complexity involved in inventing the story of a God-Man–someone who is truly God and truly man. In each of the Gospels, Jesus forgives sins, raises the dead, and declares Himself equal to God, but He also rejoices, weeps, and feels hungry. Most importantly, while still being God, He dies a painful, humiliating, and very human death. This perfect coalescence of the human and divine is unlikely to have been strung together by a group of amateur mythmakers playing the Telephone Game. From every angle, Jesus’ story seems too good to be false.
Gilson does raise and respond to a number of potential objections to the foregoing arguments, such as those who posit an unknown ‘literary genius’ who created the character of Jesus, or those who question Jesus’ moral character over His failing to abolish slavery or His silence on women’s rights or gay rights. At the end, Gilson still maintains that for Jesus’ story to have been a product of human invention would be a remarkable miracle in itself. To repeat a point worth repeating, His story seems too good to be false.
The final part of the book is dedicated to answering two important questions: If Jesus’ story is truly as great and unique as we’ve seen it to be, why does it not seem so to us? And more importantly, what can we do to change that? To answer the first, it is because we have either taken Christ’s story for granted, or have rejected Him because we find His message of being the only Way to God to be offensive. Gilson dedicates an entire chapter to defending the exclusivity of Christ’s message against pluralistic objections, before clarifying what Christians mean by ‘faith’: a trust based on knowledge and evidence. Putting the two together, Gilson concludes that we have enough knowledge and evidence about who Jesus truly was and what He did for us to accept Him by this kind of faith as the only way to salvation. In his final chapter, Gilson calls on us to stop taking this the Jesus of this great story for granted. Our current age is a difficult one for followers of Jesus, and there is no doubt that our faithfulness to Him will be tested. It is only through recognizing the truth, uniqueness, and greatness of His story that we will continue to worship Him, love Him, put our hope in Him, and follow Him, no matter what.
The book ends with an epilogue to Christian teachers and leaders on how to train their fellow Christians in an increasingly anti-Christian age. There are also two terrific appendices whose contents I will not give away. By themselves, they make the book worth getting.
One of my complaints about many recent popular-level apologetics books is that they tend to cover hackneyed topics with more or less the same approach. (Try counting the number of books from the past decade or so that cover the minimal facts argument in a manner almost identical to the popular approach of Habermas or Craig.) This is not a complaint I have about Too Good To Be False for two reasons.
First, the book is absolutely unique among modern apologetics books in terms of both content and approach. In fact, it is so unique that reading Gilson’s opening chapters made me a tad skeptical. I wondered whether he really could pull off the lofty goal that he had set for himself, namely being able to prove the truth of Jesus’ story by conducting a character study from within that story. Yet, at the end of his final chapter, I couldn’t help but admit that Gilson had accomplished exactly what he said he would, and that my earlier incredulity was due to never having encountered his approach before.
Second and equally refreshing was the discovery that his approach isn’t as unique as I thought it was. Arguing for the truth of Jesus’ story based on his unique and perfect character isn’t new; Gilson says that such arguments have been around earlier than the 1860s. Yet, the last author to utilize this approach is the Methodist minister Atticus G. Haygood, who wrote on it in 1929. This makes it an approach that is so old, Gilson says, “that it’s new again”. And while he seeks to resurrect this approach, he does not do so in a trite manner. Instead, he reinforces it with his own unique discoveries and adapts it to counter the various challenges that have been raised against the person of Christ since Haygood’s day; the challenges posed by the likes of Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier, to name a few. The only other book in recent memory that achieves something comparable in resurrecting an old-but-forgotten approach is Lydia McGrew’s Hidden in Plain View, and it is my sincere prayer that both these books inspire other apologists to take on similar projects.
I must also add that I found Gilson’s writing absolutely enthralling. He doesn’t tell you about Jesus as much as he shows you who Jesus is. Furthermore, there were several moments when I sensed a childlike awe in his voice as he considered a particular aspect of Jesus’ character, often leading me to be filled with a similar sense of awe at the Lord I thought I knew so well. I am certain that other readers will sense this too.
In sum, Tom Gilson’s Too Good To Be False is a book I wholeheartedly recommend. It is a timely reminder that the story of Jesus leaves us with nothing with which to ‘cancel’ Him, and more than enough to fall at His feet and worship Him. And this makes Him too good to be false.
Special thanks to Nathan Ward of DeWard Publishing Company for providing me with a review copy of this book.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.