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Quote of the Day: Why Don’t You Just “Believe?”

bart ehrman

What do you have to lose by having faith and believing that Christ was born supernaturally as a result of a virgin birth to Mary, that Christ performed miracles, that Christ died by crucifixion and came back to life from the dead, and that Christ went back into heaven in a supernatural ascension into heaven? I don’t see any downside.

I get this kind of question on occasion. Usually when someone asks it they tie it to “Pascal’s Wager.”


The first question I would ask this person is: Are you able to believe something that you honestly do not think is true?

The question itself raises a much bigger issue: what does it mean to believe? Does anyone really and genuinely think that authentic faith means mouthing certain words that you don’t actually subscribe to in order to be let off the hook? Would God be convinced by that? Wouldn’t he, uh, see through it?  I assume so. So what good would it do for me to say that I believe something I don’t actually believe?

And how can I force myself to think something is true when I don’t think it is? Belief isn’t mouthing words or lying to get off the hook.


The second question I would ask is, for me, the real zinger: Can it really be a simple case of either/or?  Either you believe or not?  In other words, is it really a case that if you choose to believe and you’re right, you may be saved, but if you’re wrong you will be damned?   Doesn’t that assume there are only two options: believe in Christ for salvation or don’t and be damned?

That may have made sense for Pascal, who lived in a world where, for all practical purposes, there were TWO options. But what about our own world?  We don’t have two options. We have scads of them. And it is literally impossible to take them all.

That is to say:  If you want to make sure you cover your bases when it comes to salvation: WHICH religion do you follow? Suppose you decide, OK, I’ll take Pascal’s wager and decide (somehow) to believe in Christ? What if, it turns out, Christ is NOT the right option?  Or even, say, the only/best option?

In concrete terms:  what if you decide to believe in Christ and then it turns out the Muslims are right? You could be damned forever for choosing the wrong option. So how do you cover the Islamic option as well as the Christianity one? And … well …  there are lots of religions to choose from.

Even within Christianity: I know some Christians who have an entire detailed list of what you have to believe to be saved. And I know other Christians who have a different list. It is impossible to believe both at once, since they are at odds with one another. On a most simple level, I know different Christians who believe that if you do not belong to their denomination, you will be damned; and even Christians who say that you have to be baptized in their particular church to be saved. So what’cha gonna do?

On this logic, do you become Mormon to cover your bases? And Catholic? And Southern Baptist? And a Jehovah’s Witness? And an Independent-Bible-Believing-Hell-Fire-and-Brimstone Fundamentalist? And …. ?

— Dr. Bart Ehrman, Why Don’t You Just Believe?, December 1, 2019

Want to access all of Bart Ehrman’s posts? Become a member of his blog. $24.95 per year, with all proceeds going to charity.


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    Karen the rock whisperer

    This reminds me of an old movie–The Mummy, I think–where one of the characters wears the symbols of many religions as pendants on neck chains. He was depicted as a craven con man who sided with whoever would pay him, and kind of played for laughs. With the religious pendants, he was clearly hedging his bets.

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    “christians” don’t care if you REALLY believe, they just want you to SAY you believe, even if you don’t…

    and don’t rock the boat if they say something that is demonstrably wrong, like the whole thing with the talking animals or the burning bush…

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    This sums up the underlying basis of my own worldview as regards religion, that one cannot help what one believes. No matter how many times I utter the words, as people do in church at least, I cannot force myself actually to believe. So some evangelical condemning me to hell (of course she’d deny it, saying it’s up to god) because of my belief misses the point. If there is a god then he will be far more interested in sincerity than in fake utterances.

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      Since deconverting and reading atheist blogs, I realise many of us have had the same experience. We’d been sold out for jesus, in many cases, for decades. So it was with mounting horror, we realised we had been dedicating our lives to a sham, a fiction and we could no longer keep up the fake utterances. Much as we might try to avoid this conclusion, we couldn’t do so, we had no agenda to deconvert others, we just knew we had to be honest – and now be at peace – with ourselves.

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        Matilda: So true! Many of us held onto our beliefs – at least some – in desperation through our deconversion process. It was hard and scary admitting to ourselves that we no longer found them to be true. We weren’t looking for excuses to back out of christianity. I like your description, “it was with mounting horror, we realised we had been dedicating our lives to a sham, a fiction…” It CAN be horrifying at the time. Then afterwards, as you said, we find ourselves at peace.

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    Brunetto Latini

    What do you have to lose by believing that? I guess not much if you fit the criteria for being a Christian. Lots of people don’t. Christianity is really an easy fit for some folks, though they like to say how hard it is to follow Christ, etc. It isn’t for them.

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    While I love Ehrman’s work and have bought many of his books, I balk at paying a yearly fee for his blog. I’m not sure why that sits so poorly with me, even though it goes to charity…. but to me a blog is unvarnished, unpublished (in a sense) work that might be revised and recycled for a later book which I would buy–essentially paying for it twice. I dunno… It just strikes me odd.

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    Why can’t Christians just believe in Vishnu, or in Odin, or Horus, or any and all of them?

    One of the things I liked about the ancient Romans was that they paid homage to any and all gods when they encountered new ones. They were smart enough to cover all their bases. I do the same in reverse – I ignore all the gods as I don’t think any of them are real.

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    Melissa A Montana

    What have you got to lose? Plenty. I spent decades depriving myself of “worldly pleasures” in order to be pure. All I did was miss out on a lot of fun. Life is too short to be denying oneself a few pleasures (wine, sex, music, dancing, sports, art) in order to please a god that probably doesn’t exist. Life is hard enough without living like a monk.

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    Ehrman’s last paragraph reminded me of someone of my mom’s mail route about 40 years ago. Thi woman had been Catholic, then she became a Baptist, then Seventh-Day Adventist, then JW, and then Mormon. I’m not sure if Mormon was her last stop on the spiritual merry-go-round or not.

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Bruce Gerencser