As someone who takes an interest in the intersection of the historical Jesus and Christian apologetics, it sometimes feels like all that can be said has been said. Works asking the question “who was Jesus?” are legion, both from a skeptical viewpoint and a Christian perspective. Too Good to Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality by Tom Gilson takes a fresh perspective that makes this the first work of apologetics that made me want to worship.
There are plenty of books that defend the reliability of the Gospels by looking at historical evidence or examining skeptical objections. Gilson does a bit of an end-around and shows that the person of Jesus isn’t like any other character in history or fiction. He does this by not just focusing on who Jesus is as presented in the New Testament, but what he didn’t do. And when you see that, you’ll realize that it’s a story too good to be false. Jesus just can’t be invented.
For example, Gilson argues that the Gospels never told a story about Jesus using his miraculous powers to serve himself. Every miracle that the Gospels record was driven by Jesus’ radical compassion and other-centeredness. And he never lost sight of his other-focused mission, not once.
The Gospels could have portrayed Jesus as “saying thus says the Lord” like the prophets before him. Instead, Jesus would say things like ‘you have heard it that it was said …but verily, I say unto you’. If Jesus wrote a paper, his citations would be ‘Myself’, and it wouldn’t be at all arrogant. And not one Gospel writer portrayed him breezing through his sufferings, putting his deity above his humanity.
Jesus is never depicted as having faith, a new argument I hadn’t previously thought about. If you’re God, do you really need to have faith in yourself? And Jesus was brilliant, never losing a debate or being thrown off-guard by a tough question. Jesus was never had one of those shower-moments where he said to Himself, “that’s what I should’ve said!”
Drawing on the works of other great apologists that have unfortunately long been forgotten, Gilson multiplies examples like these in a fun and entertaining way. He’s not just coldly laying down facts, he’s like a kid in a candy store. You can tell that this study has impacted him deeply personally, and he can’t wait to tell you about it, or more accurately, about Jesus. There’s an evangelistic passion here.
Gilson’s argument is summarized in one of these great apologists, Howard Bushnell:
“By what accident, then, we are compelled to ask, was an age of myths and fables able to develop and set forth the only conception of a perfect character ever known in our world? Were these four mythological dreamers, believing their own dreams and all others besides, the men to produce the perfect character of Jesus, and a system of teachings that transcend all other teachings ever given to the race? If there be a greater miracle, or a tax on human credulity more severe, we know not where it is. Nothing is so difficult, all human literature testifies, as to draw a character, and keep it in its living proportions. How much more to draw a perfect character, and not discolor it fatally by marks from the imperfection of the biographer.”
In other words, the skeptics tell us that the personality and deeds of Jesus were like a game of Telephone. Myths were breathed into the story of Jesus to make him seem more significant. But we all have divergent ideas of greatness, and somehow we have four biographies that point to a man with perfect character, compassion, authority, and leadership. Jesus’ perfection of character is uniform by every Christian writer we have in the New Testament, but he is so unlike the kind of perfect man we would invent.
Almost everyone wants to co-opt Jesus on the side of their cause. Jesus was the most influential person in history.
The bottom line is this: If this wasn’t true, then the Gospel writers must have been far superior to Jesus himself. And that just doesn’t make sense. We have apocryphal Gospels to compare them to — Jesus turning clay into birds, cursing kids who teased him and talking crosses speaking of the grandness of his resurrection. These are what real legends look like.
If you’re a skeptic, you should read this book. Even if you find Gilson’s arguments to be not fully persuasive, at the very least, you should come away wanting the Gospels to be true. I can’t come close to doing his argument justice here, just be prepared to be challenged more than you might expect.
If you’re a Christian, you also should read this book. We can tend to take Jesus for granted, but I promise you’ll see Jesus with fresh eyes after reading it and end up loving him more. This is more than just a book defending the Gospels or the Deity of Christ, although it certainly is that. But you just can’t talk about the grandness of Jesus and it not affect your heart.
And if you’re an apologist and a book nut like me, Gilson provides a bibliography of these forgotten gems of apologetics. Many of these are public domain. I know I’ve downloaded several of them already. My appetite has definitely been whetted to read even more on this argument, but it’s not for a lack of thoroughness on Gilson’s part.
You can get the book here, and it comes with ringing endorsements from JP Moreland, J Warner Wallace, Sean McDowell, Josh McDowell, Gary Habermas, and Lee Strobel. Its release date is 8/1/2020.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.