A recent Twitter poll by philosopher Stephen Law asked atheists about their belief in the existence of God. The results were interesting.
Atheists only: do you believe Jesus was real, that Jesus is a myth, or are unsure either way?
— Stephen Law (@stephenlaw60) May 13, 2019
Only 30% could say with any level of certainty that Jesus existed. Not whether he was the messiah or the Son of God but that he existed.
This is not representative of the scholarly attitude to the question. I would suggest that the number of historians and biblical scholars (including Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics) who say that Jesus existed is around 99%. Probably a little higher.
Questioning the existence of Jesus is pretty much on the same level as questioning whether the Earth is round.
So why would so many atheists doubt whether Jesus existed? It is interesting to note that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, while not identifying as Jesus mythicists, have questioned the evidence for a historical Jesus.
I can only think of two reasons that atheists would doubt the existence of Jesus (neither one having to do with the quality of the evidence).
- Some atheists take such an anti-religion view and especially anti-Christian view that it is attractive to say that Jesus never existed. “Christians are so stupid to believe that God exists, that stupidity might as well extend to belief in Jesus.” Questioning the existence of Jesus becomes a part of the rhetoric that is used to ruffle Christians.
- Perhaps some atheists have embraced such a posture of skepticism that it is just as natural to question the existence of Jesus as it is to question the existence of God. If they have found alternative explanations for the scientific or philosophical evidence for God, then there must be alternative explanations for the historical evidence for Jesus.
Beyond this, I can not understand why so many atheists question the existence. It is not because they have looked at the current state of historical Jesus scholarship.
If you are an atheist and have an explanation for the results of this poll, I would love to hear from you.
I do know that as a former atheist, if I was still in that camp, I would be skeptical of a skepticism of the existence of Jesus and of what that means for the existence of God.