review by Kermit Zarley
Josh McDowell is an evangelical Christian, a public evangelist, and an apologist. For decades, he was a traveling speaker for the para-church organization Campus Crusade for Christ, that ministers mostly to college students. I was involved in CCC during my college years.
Josh McDowell has now authored over a hundred books. Early in his ministry, he wrote a little book about Jesus entitled More than a Carpenter. Tyndale House published it in 1977. The book size is only 4” x 7,” and it consists of 128 pages. My old copy says on the front cover, “MORE THAN 10,000,000 IN PRINT WORLDWIDE.” This may indicate Josh has given many away free.
Of course, Josh McDowell means in More than a Carpenter, that before Jesus undertook his public ministry at about thirty years of age, he was a professional carpenter. But what does Josh mean about Jesus being more than a carpenter? He doesn’t only mean that Jesus also became a prophet and a Torah teacher. McDowell means that Jesus also was fully God, and that is mostly what Josh tries to prove in this little book.
McDowell makes this same, more extensive, argument in other books. One was a bestselling, nearly 400-page book entitled Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1972). Due to its success, out came More Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Josh presents his arguments, yet both books are known for being mostly full of quotations by scholars and others to support his thesis. Josh also co-authored a book devoted entirely to this theme, Jesus: A Biblical Defense of his Deity (1982).
McDowell mentions me in his first Evidence book. A few years ago, I met Josh for the first time. I afterwards challenged him to publicly debate whether or not Jesus is God, but he declined.
For more than the past fifty years, Josh McDowell has been one of the main ministers in the U.S. who proclaims this traditional view held by the post-apostolic, institutional church that Jesus is God. I disagree. Yet I greatly respect Josh McDowell for his evangelistic work and his emphasis on calling especially young people to the biblical standards for sexual morality.
I used to believe like Josh McDowell, that the Bible teaches Jesus is God and even that the New Testament (NT) gospels cite Jesus claiming to be God. But then, one day during my personal Bible reading, I read Jesus’ statement about his yet future return in which he said, “But about that day and/or hour no one knows, neither the angels of/in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24.36/Mark 13.32 NRSV), with “Son” referring to himself. I knew this saying well.
Like almost all Christians, due especially to the Catholic Church’s Nicene Creed (AD 325), I had been taught that Jesus was just as much God as the Father was God. But I also had been taught, due to the statement of the later Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), about the so-called hypostatic union. It explains how Jesus was both man and God by having two natures: a human nature and a divine nature. Plus, I was taught that whenever we read something in the NT gospels about what Jesus said or did, that occurred due to the source of one of Jesus’ two natures. In this case about Jesus indicating he did not know the time of his return, I was taught that he said that from the source of his human nature, but he really did know the time of his second coming in his divine nature. How? If the Father knows it then Jesus, in his divine nature, must know it too.
In Josh McDowell’s book, More than a Carpenter, he begins chapter 1, “What Makes Jesus So Different,” by saying, “Men and women down through the ages have been divided over the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’” On the next page Josh says, “How is Jesus different from other religious leaders? Why don’t the names of Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius offend people? The reason is that these others didn’t claim to be God, but Jesus did. That is what makes him so different from other religious leaders…. It became clear that his own claims were identifying him as more than just a prophet or teacher. He was obviously making claims to deity…. the issue is … who did Jesus claim to be.”
This is Josh McDowell’s main argument in More than a Carpenter, that Jesus claimed to be God. Yet Josh doesn’t provide any evidence that Jesus made this claim. C. S. Lewis does likewise in his celebrated bestseller, Mere Christianity (1943). He asserts that Jesus claimed to be God, and then he fails to defend this assertion by quoting any saying of Jesus from the NT gospels. This omission seems to be characteristic of these traditionalist apologists—they assert categorically that Jesus claimed to be God, and then they don’t try to prove it from scripture. This procedure makes it appear that they think it is a given that Jesus made such claims. No it is not! And to a person who knows the NT gospels well, it smack of a glaring ignorance of the sayings of Jesus.
On the next page, p. 12, McDowell states unequivocally, “The New Testament clearly presents Christ as God.” At least Josh then provides the major NT texts that traditionalists (those who believe Jesus is God) cite to support their view that Jesus is God. But Josh doesn’t do much more than that. Here are the texts he cites, in his order: Titus 2.13; John 1.1; Hebrews 1.8; Romans 9.5; 1 John 5.20, 21.
Josh soon mentions doubting Thomas saying to the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God” (John 20.28). Thus, McDowell here insists on the traditional understanding that Thomas here identifies Jesus as “God.” But I contend that Thomas was merely reflecting the truth that Jesus had taught him days earlier, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14.9-11).
In this same context, McDowell quotes three NT figures—Peter, Martha, and Nathaniel—saying to Jesus that he is “the Son of God” (Matt. 16.16; John 11.27; 1.49). Josh is unclear here, but it is obvious that he means, as most traditionalists do, that Jesus being “the Son of God” means that he is God. But distinguished traditionalist NT scholars now deny this. Indeed, this reasoning comes from Greek metaphysics, not the Hebrew Bible that applies the appellation “son of God” to angels, the king of Israel, and Israel itself. Some NT applications of this title to Jesus are accompanied with “the Christ,” suggesting that they therein are used synonymously (Matt. 16.6; 26.63; John 11.27; cf. 1.49; Psalm 2.2-7).
On p. 15, McDowell cites John 5.18 and says of it that Jesus calling God “my Father” indicates he “made himself equal with God.” Quite the contrary; this was the conclusion of unbelieving Jews, and the text then records Jesus’ lengthy rebuttal, in vv. 19-47. Then in the next sentence Josh commits a surprising gaff by saying, “The Jews did not refer to God as ‘my Father.’ Or if they did, they would qualify the statement with ‘in heaven.’ However, Jesus did not do this.” A simple Bible concordance reveals that in the Gospel of Matthew alone, it quotes Jesus saying seven times, “my Father who is in heaven,” and five times, “your Father who is in heaven.”
On pp. 16-17, McDowell quote Jesus saying, “I and the Father are one” (John 10.30). Josh then offers the typical fare of traditionalists about this saying by arguing that it means, “one in ‘essence or nature.’” He adds, “Jesus continually spoke of himself as one in essence and nature with God.” He then cites Jesus’ sayings in John 5.23; 8.19; 12.45; 15.23. He concludes from these, “Jesus looked at himself as being more than just a man; rather, he was equal with God.” On the contrary, these sayings of Jesus merely indicate his honor of being God’s agent par excellence. Jesus’ divine agency—being sent by God—is a primary theme in the Gospel of John, and traditionalists have confounded it by asserting it means that Jesus is God.
On p. 19, McDowell declares, “Christ, since he forgave sins, was God.” Jesus did acknowledge to the Jewish crowd who saw him heal the paralytic that he possessed this attribute as “the Son of Man” (Mark 2.10). But this characteristic was not inherent in any nature of Jesus; rather, it was a privilege given to him by the Father (John 5.22, 27), thus certainly not indicating he was God. Thus, Josh is thus wrong in stating, “in no way can anyone forgive sins committed against God except God himself.”
On p. 20, McDowell says of the Sanhedrin’s condemnation of Jesus, “Those trial proceedings are one of the clearest references to Jesus’ claims of deity.” Quite the contrary; if they thought Jesus ever made such a claim, they would have accused him of this far greater infraction than merely admitting to being “the Messiah, the Son of God” (Matt. 26.63). On p. 23, Josh concludes in this first chapter, “The trial of Jesus ought to be sufficient to demonstrate convincingly that he confessed his divinity.” To make matters worse, Josh insists, “on the day of his crucifixion, he enemies acknowledged that he claimed to be God come in the flesh.” He then cites this in which they said he said, “I am the Son of God” (Matt. 27.43). But again, McDowell confuses being the Son of God with being God.
In chapter 2, “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?” McDowell presents C. S. Lewis’ well-known trilemma argument, that either Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or he is God. I have already written about this and opposed it in my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. See my post on this on 6/19/2013, “Was Jesus a Liar, Lunatic, or God?”
In the rest of Josh McDowell’s More than a Carpenter, he does well in attempting to argue for the historical reliability of the NT gospels, that Jesus arose from the dead, and just generally that he was the Messiah of Israel. But again, he repeatedly conflates Jesus being the Son of God with it being synonymous with being God.
Josh McDowell could have just as well titled this book, More than a Conqueror. Why? He and all traditionalists to some extent harm the story of Jesus as a conqueror or overcomer with their unbiblical assertion that he is God. For Jesus said, “I have overcome the world” (John 16.33 NASB, NIV, ESV). Some English versions translate this, “I have conquered the world” (KJV, NRSV). Also, in each of Jesus’ messages to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, he predicts a special blessing will come to those who overcome (Rev 2.7, 11, 17, 26; 3.5, 12, 21). In the last message his says, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat with my Father on his throne” (3.21).
If Jesus was God, he didn’t overcome anything. For Jesus’ brother James states unequivocally, “God cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1.13). So, if Jesus was God he could not have been tempted and thus could not have overcome. Yet James begins this letter by distinguishing God from Jesus, saying, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1.1). This brother, one of Jesus family members, certainly did not believe that Jesus was God.
So, if Jesus was God, the devil’s temptations of him were not real, but a farce. Yet two gospel writers give detailed reports that Satan tempted Jesus three times (Matt. 4.1-11; Luke 4.1-13).
What do we lose by believing that Jesus is God? We lose him being our model for overcoming sin and temptation. For people say it is easy for God not to sin. Yet the writer of Hebrews says of Jesus, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,… Therefore HE HAD TO BECOME LIKE HIS BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN EVERY RESPECT [emphasis mine] so that he might be a merciful and faithful IN THE SERVICE OF GOD, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2.14-18). The capitalized words reveal that Jesus could not have been God.