I have spent much of my apologetics activity responding to the Jesus myth theory. My first book (co-authored with Stanley Porter) Unmasking the Pagan Christ and my first journal article were both responses to the Jesus myth theory.
Although generally discounted by scholars, I believe that it is a dangerous theory that is influencing people through the medium of the internet. I am thankful that many apologists see this challenge and are responding to it.
This post is not a response to the specific claims of the Jesus myth theory.
My question is: Why is there even a Jesus myth theory to begin with? It does not make sense for people to just wake up one morning and decide they are going to question the historicity of one of the most well known ancient figures. Why do they do it?
I do not believe that there is only one answer to that question. I will present four possible reasons for people to embrace this theory.
1) Atheist Agenda. Atheists by definition deny the existence of God. Traditionally, however, they have accepted the existence of Jesus. They have seen Jesus as either someone who was delusional or someone who was misrepresented (usually by Paul).
More recently, some atheists have begun to question the existence of Jesus as well. Why make this leap? It may be the fault of many Christian apologists. Some apologists, including myself, see the resurrection of Jesus as the best evidence for the existence of God. If the evidence demonstrates that Jesus died and then on the third day was seen alive, something supernatural must have happened.
Instead of attacking each piece of evidence, it may be easier for some atheists to just reject the entire story. There is no need to respond to the empty tomb if Jesus never existed.
2) Anti-Religion. This reason has some overlap with the first but it is somewhat different. Being anti-religious does not require being an atheist. Some people use their love for God to fuel their hatred of religion.
The denial of the existence of Jesus should be seen in the context of attitudes toward other founders of major religions. In addition to denying the existence of Jesus, there are those who deny the existence of Moses, Buddha and Muhammad. Admittedly, those who deny the existence of Muhammad are quite careful in how they express that view.
There seems to be a trend for people to question the existence of every founder of a religion. How long before people question the existence of Joseph Smith?
3) Another Conspiracy. Some people embrace the Jesus myth because of their love for conspiracy theories. We can assume that at some point people knew that Jesus was a myth and then at another point people believed he was real. Someone had to be responsible for this change.
The Church has made many mistakes over the centuries and so they are an easy target. Church leaders must have secretly decided to make Jesus historical, presumably to make money off of the ignorant masses.
Once you add Constantine into the mix, you have both religious and political powers conspiring together. That is the makings of the perfect conspiracy theory.
4) Alternative spirituality. Not everyone who subscribes to the Jesus myth does it for negative reasons. Some use it to replace traditional Christianity with an alternative spirituality.
My introduction to the Jesus myth came through Canadian author Tom Harpur. Harpur is a former Anglican priest. Having read his books and spoken with him over coffee, I have a sense of why he believes what he does. Harpur was deeply disturbed by the exclusivity of traditional Christianity. Belief in Jesus as the only way is, according to Harpur, the reason behind the crusades, inquisition, holocaust and so on.
But what if the story of Jesus was true in a spiritual sense rather than a historical sense? What if there was no historical Jesus to divide Jews, Christians and Muslims? What if there was a cosmic Christ in every human of every religion and of no religion? Then there would be the potential for peace and unity for the human race.
This is not the place to respond to each of these claims. Rather the purpose of this post is to acknowledge that there are different reasons why people accept the Jesus myth. The practical application for apologists is to determine the kind of Jesus mythicist we are interacting with. Their place in each of the four categories will influence how we respond to their questions.