A Review of Too Good to Be False by Tom Gilson
History shows that prudence and wisdom are rarely associated with new ways of looking at Scripture. This is especially true of the "progressive" bent toward remaking Jesus in a postmodern image. So when I first heard about Tom Gilson's new book, Too Good to Be False, I was confused. Gilson is a solid Christian thinker. But the back cover of his book told me that "Christians reading [it] will encounter Jesus in fresh, worshipful new ways." Had he gone to the dark side?
Ten pages into his book my fears were allayed. It turns out Jesus' story can still surprise you. Gilson's book is not a new interpretation of Jesus. It's a challenge to see ancient words with fresh eyes. And the picture he paints is astonishing.
Would You Hire This Guy?
Gilson asks the reader to imagine receiving a memo from someone you work with. Its purpose is to introduce an individual he wants you to consider for a job opening in your office. In the memo, he describes the candidate as someone who never learns from experience, and certainly not from his own mistakes. In fact, he's never admitted to making a mistake. His leadership skills haven't improved in the least. He shows no sign of character growth. When you ask him questions, he rarely gives you a straight answer. In his view, you can disagree with him, but that would just make you wrong. And he commands those who work with him to do things his way without exception (51–52).
Would you consider hiring this candidate? Or would you ask yourself, "Who does this guy think he is?"
That's Jesus as you've probably never thought of him before.
Fall on Your Face
Insights like this one in Too Good to Be False are not based on rethinking Jesus' doctrines or divinity. Quite the opposite. They are reminders that we are too used to the populist Jesus we've all been encouraged to befriend. When you focus on what he actually said and did, you have no temptation to punch him in the shoulder and laugh. Instead, you are overwhelmed by the urge to fall down on your face and worship him. Yet he invites you into his circle of trust anyway.
The real Jesus is a leader unlike any the world has ever seen. He speaks and acts with authority, confidence, and power. But he never misuses that power. He never even uses it to his own advantage. Instead, he directs that power toward loving others. He commands respect. And he is always the wisest person in the room.
The combination of these traits describes a man who cannot be of this world. He's unlike anyone any of us has ever met or even heard about. And while it's tempting to say that makes him too good to be true, history tells us differently. The facts are more compelling. They make him too good to be false.
A Novel Character
Jesus' persona is so exceedingly superior it demands an explanation. After all, he's the most memorable "character" ever created. And that could make it tempting to write him off as the invention of someone's very fertile imagination. But you don't have that option. Dismissing the Jesus of the Gospels that way would be tantamount to subscribing to the most outrageous conspiracy theory in human history—a coordinated forgery made by multiple authors, all possessed of the same wildly improbable delusion. But it's even worse than that.
To hear the skeptics tell it, the Jesus story is a grand version of the telephone game. It got invented, embellished, retold, and passed down through multiple storytellers in various locations. Yet, somehow, the legendary character this process created turns out to be exactly the same man everywhere we look. He lives in all four Gospels (five if you join the ones who invoke 'Q'). Somehow, this scrambled mess "produced a greater miracle than the resurrection: the greatest story of all time, with the greatest character in all literature, presenting moral teaching that's changed every civilization it's touched for the better" (133).
Quite a miracle indeed.
Confronting the Skeptics
The usual skeptics won't take this lying down, of course. But Tom Gilson has been engaging them and their ideas on his Thinking Christian blog since 2004. He's heard all of their arguments hundreds of times. So when it comes to handling objections to his thesis, he does so with style, grace, and simplicity. They're all there—Dawkins, Spong, Aslan, Ehrman, Carrier, Price, Armstrong, Hitchens, and others—and Gilson acknowledges their points. But instead of trying to cut down each tree, he focuses on the forest. Jesus of Nazareth is a character no one could make up.
There are ways to respond to the details of the so-called Gospel "contradictions." But some skeptics just refuse to recognize them as simple differences in point of view. It's tempting to feel compelled to explain why Jesus didn't talk about today's hot-button moral and social issues. The skeptics don't care that, throughout history, the solution to every moral dilemma has come through the actions of Jesus' followers. We've heard the bluster about how Jesus "became God" (Ehrman) or how he was simply another rehashed legend (Dawkins, Armstrong). We've even been told that he didn't really exist at all (Carrier). None of these gets to the heart of the problem.
With all the corruption and shenanigans entailed in passing down the skeptics' legendary Jesus, how could the Gospel authors have pulled it off? How could each of them have arrived at the same God-man Jesus when the telephone game hadn't had time to invent his deity before they wrote their stories?
The Jesus We Take for Granted
Jesus was a media influencer before it was cool. But what made him popular with those who knew him best also made him notorious with the political and religious leaders of his day. Nobody likes a guy who thinks he's God incarnate. People like that need to be eliminated. But when you have eliminated such a one and he reappears shortly thereafter, you know you've got a real problem on your hands.
It's only happened once.
Today, the most vehement opponents of Christianity still invoke his name. They do so in an effort to expose the "hypocrisy" of modern Christians. But when they do, they're making Tom Gilson's point. Even they admire the one person in human history whom "no author, no poet and no playwright has ever devised . . . a character of perfect power and perfect love like Jesus" (126).
He is the standard by which every other character is measured. Too loving to be a liar. Too compelling to be a lunatic. He only leaves us one choice. And Too Good to Be False reminds us that it is a choice we have too often taken for granted.Bob Perry
is a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy (B. S., Aerospace Engineering) and Biola University (M.A., Christian Apologetics). Recently retired, his professional aviation career included 8 years in the U. S. Marine Corps flying the AV-8B Harrier attack jet and nearly 32 years as a commercial airline pilot. Bob blogs about Christianity and the culture at: https://truehorizon.org.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #56, Spring 2021 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo56/perfectly-true