In my graduate course last week, we analyzed the Proto-Gospel of James (which scholars call the Protevangelium Jacobi — a Latin phrase that means “Proto-Gospel of James,” but sounds much cooler….). It is called the “proto” Gospel because it records events that (allegedly) took place before the accounts of the NT Gospels. Its overarching focus is on Mary, the mother of Jesus; it is interested in explaining who she was. Why was *she* the one who was chosen to bear the Son of God? What made her so special? How did she come into the world? What made her more holy than any other woman? Etc. These questions drive the narrative, and make it our earliest surviving instance of the adoration of Mary. On the legends found here was built an entire superstructure of Marian tradition. Most of the book deals with the question of how Mary was conceived (miraculously, but not virginally), what her early years were like (highly sanctified; her youth up to twelve (lived in the temple, fed every day by an angel), her betrothal to Joseph, an elderly widower with sons from a previous marriage, the discovery of her pregnancy and the “proof” that she (and Joseph) were both pure from any “sin” (such as, well, sex).
The book was originally composed in the second Christian century. There are a number of intriguing passages, none of which is more famous than the one I translate here (the original language is Greek). In this striking narrative, when Mary is about ready to give birth in a cave just outside of Bethlehem, Joseph runs off to find a midwife who can help. They arrive too late. The child appears without any human help or intervention (is the child really a newborn? Jesus appears to walk over to his mother to take her breast; and he performs a healing miracle!).
It’s an amazing passage, that everyone should know about. (The first bit is given in the first-person, with Joseph himself talking). Here it is:
(1) I saw a woman coming down from the hill country, and she said to me, “O man, where are you going?” I replied, “I am looking for a Hebrew midwife.” She asked me, “Are you from Israel?” I said to her, “Yes.” She asked, “Who is the one who has given birth in the cave?” I replied, “My betrothed.” She said to me, “Is she not your wife?” I said to her, “She is Mary, the one who was brought up in the Lord’s Temple, and I received the lot to take her as my wife. She is not, however, my wife, but she has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit.” The midwife said to him, “Can this be true?” Joseph replied to her, “Come and see.” And the midwife went with him.
(2) They stood at the entrance of the cave, and a bright cloud overshadowed it. The midwife said, “My soul has been magnified today, for my eyes have seen a miraculous sign: salvation has been born to Israel.” Right away the cloud began to depart from the cave, and a great light appeared within, so that their eyes could not bear it. Soon that light began to depart, until an infant could be seen. It came and took hold of the breast of Mary, its mother. The midwife cried out, “Today is a great day for me, for I have seen this new wonder.”
(3) The midwife went out of the cave and Salome met her. And she said to her, “Salome, Salome, I can describe a new wonder to you. A virgin has given birth, contrary to her natural condition.” Salome replied, “As the Lord my God lives, if I do not insert my finger and examine her condition, I will not believe that the virgin has given birth.”
(1) The midwife went in and said to Mary, “Brace yourself. For there is no small controversy concerning you.” Then Salome inserted her finger in order to examine her condition, and she cried out, “Woe to me for my sin and faithlessness. For I have put the living God to the test, and see, my hand is burning, falling away from me.” (2) She kneeled before the Master and said, “O God of my fathers, remember that I am a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do not make me an example to the sons of Israel, but deliver me over to the poor. For you know, O Master, that I have performed my services in your name and have received my wages from you.”
(3) And behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to her, “Salome, Salome, the Master of all has heard your prayer. Bring your hand to the child and lift him up; and you will find salvation and joy.” (4) Salome joyfully came and lifted the child, saying, “I will worship him, for he has been born as a great king to Israel.” Salome was immediately cured, and she went out of the cave justified. And behold a voice came saying, “Salome, Salome, do not report all the miraculous deeds you have seen until the child enters Jerusalem.”
I have pointed out that our earliest Gospel, Mark, not only is lacking a story of the virgin birth but also tells a story that seems to run precisely counter to the idea that Jesus’ mother knew that his birth was miraculous, unlike the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is striking to note that even though these two later Gospels know about a virgin birth, our latest canonical Gospel, John, does not know about it. This was not a doctrine that everyone knew about – even toward the end of the first century.
Casual readers of John often assume that it presupposes the virgin birth (it never says anything about it, one way or the other) because they themselves are familiar with the idea, and think that John must be as well. So they typically read the virgin birth into an account that in fact completely lacks it.
Many people will respond (some of you are responding right now, in your heads!) by saying that if Christ was the Word of God [John 1] who became a human, his mother must have been a virgin. Right? Well, no, I’d say, not right. The idea that the incarnation implies a virgin birth makes sense only if you already think that Jesus’ mother was a virgin. If you don’t know about a virgin birth, there would be absolutely no reason to think that an incarnation requires a virgin birth.
Scholars have often thought that there is an indication in John’s Gospel that there were questions floating around about Jesus’ “unusual” birth. In the controversy that Jesus has with his Jewish opponents in John 8, they make a comment that is often taken to be directed to Jesus paternal lineage, when they say “WE (emphasize the “we” here) were not born from an act of fornication” (8:41). Is this a suggestion that Jesus was known to have been born out of wedlock?
If so, is it possible that the virgin birth stories that appear in other traditions (Matthew and Luke) was a response to this charge against Jesus? “You nonbelievers say he was born out of fornication. It’s true that his mother was not married when she conceived, but that’s because it was God who made her pregnant.” It is interesting that in pagan circles we have stories of women who were charged with extra-marital sex, leading to pregnancy, who claimed that in fact a God had made them pregnant. This is precisely what legend says about the mother of Romulus, the founder of Rome.
My point: John’s Gospel does not mention a virgin birth. And it does not presuppose a virgin birth. It indicates that Jesus was the incarnation of the Word of God. The only way to get a virgin birth into the Gospel of John is to read it into the Gospel of John. Because it’s not there.
And this now is the yet bigger point. Matthew and Luke do not say a THING about Jesus being the incarnation of the pre-existent Son of God. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is not a pre-existent being. He comes into existence when he is conceived of a virgin. John’s Gospel is just the opposite: it does not have a virginal conception of Jesus. It has Jesus as a pre-existent divine being who becomes incarnate.
The traditional Christian doctrine takes the view of Matthew and Luke, and smashes it together with the view of John, and creates a view found in NONE of the Gospels, namely, that Jesus Christ was a pre-existent human being “who became incarnate through the Virgin Mary” (as the Nicene Creed states).
That is often how Christian doctrines are created out of the Bible, by combining disparate views of different authors and through that combination creating something that precisely none of them subscribed to. I’m not saying these doctrines are wrong. I’m simply saying that they are not the doctrines held by the authors whose writings are used to create them.
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One of the cardinal doctrines of Evangelical Christianity is the belief that the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible are inspired, inerrant, and infallible. Every word, every syllable, every letter is without error. The Bible, according to Evangelicals, is different from all other books, in that it was divinely inspired and written by the Christian God. Some Evangelicals believe that God directly dictated the words of the Bible to the original writers. Other Evangelicals believe that God directed the writers to write in such a way that every word is without error. Thus, when Evangelicals say the Bible is inerrant, they mean that the text is internally consistent and without discrepancy, mistake, or error. In other words, every word of the Bible is true.
Ask Evangelical pastors exactly WHAT is inerrant, and they will likely give one of the following responses:
The original manuscripts are inerrant.
The sum of extant manuscripts is inerrant.
Certain extant manuscript families (i.e. Byzantine, Majority, Textus-Receptus) are inerrant.
The __________ (fill in with appropriate version) translation is inerrant. (One Evangelical colleague told me that ALL translations are inerrant.)
Some Evangelical pastors believe that God has preserved his Word without error down through history, right down to a particular translation — namely the 1769 revision of the King James Bible. Some of these pastors might say that the 1611 edition of the King James Bible is inerrant, but most of them use the 1769 revision, not the 1611. The fact that there are textual differences between the two means that one or the other isn’t inerrant. Other Evangelical pastors believe the King James Bible is inspired by God, right down to the italicized helper words inserted by translators.
Evangelical pastors, as they are wont to do, go to great — and often comical — lengths to explain the doctrine of inerrancy. Serving up theological word salads, these defenders of inerrancy wow congregants with their Trumpian theological prowess. Church members come away believing that whatever translation they are using is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Asking these members if their Bible contains errors, mistakes, or contractions brings a swift and emphatic NO! However, privately ask educated Evangelical pastors the same question and they will dance all over the place as they attempt to explain that translations are not inerrant, but they ARE faithful, trustworthy, or reliable. Some pastors, realizing that defending inerrancy makes them look like an imbecile, will say that the Bible is inerrant in matters of faith and practice. For these pastors, it doesn’t matter if the Bible is wrong about history and science. The Bible was never meant to be used as a science or history textbook. All that matters is what the Bible says regarding beliefs essential to Christian faith. Good luck trying to pin down pastors on exactly what beliefs are essential.
The original manuscripts of the Bible do not exist in any shape or form. There are thousands of manuscripts from which the various Bible versions are translated. These copies of copies of copies of copies disagree with each other in thousands of places. Granted, most of these discrepancies are minor, but remember, the standard for Biblical inerrancy — WITHOUT ERROR. This means if these manuscripts contain one error, they can not be considered inerrant. The same can be said for translations. If it can be shown that a particular translation has mistakes or internal inconsistencies — and it can — then the text cannot be considered inerrant. Whatever the Bible is or isn’t, one thing is for certain: the Bible is not inerrant. I can’t think of an intellectually honest way to argue that the text of the Protestant Bible in any of its varied forms is without error.
Knowing the Biblical inerrancy cannot be intellectually or rationally sustained, many Evangelical pastors turn to sleight of hand trickery to make it seem that the Bible is inerrant. One popular trick used is harmonization. Bart Ehrman recommends reading each book of the Bible on its own without making attempts to harmonize that book with other books of the Bible. Let each author — whomever he might be — speak for himself without reading into his words what other Biblical writers said. Of course, doing so leaves readers with books that contradict each other, with Jesus, Paul, Peter, and James each having gospels different from the other, and the gospel authors contradicting each other on matters of historical fact. This is why Christian pastors teach congregants to harmonize the Bible. Harmonization makes disparate verses “fit,” supposedly providing a cohesive, consistent text. By doing this, all the alleged textual errors and contradictions disappear — at least in the minds of Evangelical preachers anyway.
Many Evangelical pastors know the Bible is not inerrant. Privately, they will bitch and complain about Bible thumpers such as Ken Ham, David Barton, Jerry Falwell, Jr, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, James Robison, Jim Bakker, and Bob Gray Sr. They wish these men would shut the darn, freaking, heck up.* *Approved Baptist curse words used. (Please read Christian Swear Words.) However, when these very same swearing preachers enter their pulpits on Sunday, they sing a different tune, leading congregants to believe that the translations they hold in their hands are the inspired, inerrant, infallible Words of God. These liars for Jesus know that telling people that the Bible contains errors, mistakes, and contradictions would lead to conflict, unrest, membership loss, reduced offerings, and perhaps even unemployment. If there is one thing I learned as an Evangelical pastor it is this: congregants want certainty. When they read their Bibles, church members want/need to feel/know that what they hold in their hands consists of the very words of God. Without this assurance, people will lose faith in the Bible/God/Jesus/Church. Can’t have that. There is a kingdom to build, an empire to maintain. Doing so requires people of great faith, even if their faith is built upon a lie.
If you are interested in reading further about Biblical inerrancy, I encourage you to read one or more of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman’s books. Countless Evangelical pastors have done so and now know, if they didn’t know already, that inerrancy is a house of cards. They may not admit this publicly, but when safely meeting behind closed doors with their ministerial colleagues, these men of God speak great lamentations of woe over the pervasive ignorance found among those who believe the Bible is inerrant. However, until they tell their congregations the truth about the Biblical text, what do they expect? Congregants look to their pastors to educate them about the Bible. Most Evangelicals go through life with a borrowed theology — often whatever their pastors believe. Knowing this, Evangelical pastors should speak the truth concerning the Bible and encourage people to study the inerrancy issue for themselves. What better way to do this than starting a Bart Ehrman Book Club. Let me suggest several of his books that will drive a stake in the heart of the brain-sucking doctrine of Biblical inerrancy:
Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.
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Evangelicals believe that the moment a sinner is saved, God, in the person of the Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost, comes into the born-again sinner’s life and lives — somewhere, no one can say for sure where — inside of that person. This is commonly called the “indwelling of the Spirit of God.” Every true Christian® is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 6:19 states that the bodies of Christians belong to God; that these bodies are the temple, the residence, of the Holy Ghost.
What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?
In Romans 8:7-10,13,14,16, the Apostle Paul says that Christians have the Spirit of God dwelling inside of them.
Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God…The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
Those who do not have the Spirit’s presence are not Christian. How can someone know he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit? While Evangelicals tend to focus on right beliefs as evidence of salvation, Paul says here that behavior is the evidence for whether someone is led by the Spirit. Those who are in the flesh (unbelievers) cannot please God, but, according to Paul, Christians are “not in the flesh, but in the Spirit.” Paul speaks of death for those who live according to the flesh. True Christians® are to mortify (put to the death) the flesh. This mortification of the body brings life, both in the present and the afterlife.
Reflecting the Gnosticism found throughout the Bible, Paul tells the Church at Corinth that the things of God cannot be known apart from the indwelling of the Holy Ghost:
But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:10-14)
The natural man (non-Christian) cannot understand the things of God. Supposedly, only Christians can understand and correctly interpret the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. The Bible is the only book ever written that cannot be understood just by reading it. Unbelievers, according to Evangelicals, have sin-darkened hearts and are in bondage to the ruler of this earth, the prince and power of the air, Satan. According to the Bible, non-Christians are deaf and blind to Biblical truth. No unbeliever can understand the Bible without first being saved and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
I’ve never found it at all convincing that a person needs the Holy Spirit in order to interpret the Bible. As an agnostic, of course, I don’t believe in the Holy Spirit (since I don’t believe in God). But even when I did believe in the Holy Spirit, I thought that it was silly to claim that a person could not interpret the Bible correctly without the Spirit – for a couple of reasons that have always struck me as virtually irrefutable.
The first is this: if it’s true that the Holy Spirit is the one who provides the correct interpretation of Scripture, then why is it that so many people who claim to have the Holy Spirit cannot agree on what the Bible means? This is simply an empirical fact that is not open to dispute. Different Christian interpreters of the Bible, all of them claiming to be guided by the Holy Spirit based on humble prayer, come away with diametrically opposed interpretations of major important passages, of minor less important passages, and of major biblical themes and doctrines – just about everything.
I saw this vividly when I was myself a fundamentalist Christian: clear and hard-core different interpretations of major issues, by devout and spiritual Christians, based on how the New Testament was being read. As a poignant example: I had come out of a charismatic background where we believed that “speaking in tongues” was the clearest manifestation of God’s spirit, based on our reading of Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. At Moody Bible Institute, on the other hand, we were taught that charismatic activity, and especially the speaking in tongues, was a demonic activity and that the charismatic group from which I had come was misinterpreting these passages. Well, which is it? Both groups claimed to be representing the views of the Holy Spirit that had guided their reading of Scripture.
I could point to passage after passage after passage where well-meaning and clear headed Christians who claim to be given their understanding by the Spirit provide two, three, or four contradictory interpretations of the passage. So what is the evidence that the Spirit assists in interpretation?
The second reason I’ve never bought this is that as a complete agnostic who does not believe in the Holy Spirit, I have studied passages and come to the very same conclusions as those who claim the Spirit has told them what the passages mean. If I “need” the Holy Spirit to interpret these passages, why have I interpreted them in the same way that people who have the Holy Spirit has interpreted them? Seems like I’ve done all right without the Spirit.
And there’s a reason for that. Whatever you think about God, the Holy Spirit, or the Bible – the Bible is written in human languages following human rules of spelling and grammar and coming out of completely human situations lived in by human authors. To interpret the Bible you need to be a human, one who can read words and understand sentences. Even if the Bible is inspired, it is inspired in human words and is, therefore, susceptible of human understanding. My view is that the Spirit does not contribute to the process.
Ehrman is quite right when he says that Christian confusion over exactly what the Bible says belies the notion that the Holy Spirit lives inside Evangelicals acting as some sort of divine GPS or search engine. According to many Evangelicals, all they need to do is say, Lord lead me/show me the way, and BOOM! their lives follow the exact course mapped out by the Holy Spirit. The same goes for understanding the Bible. Evangelicals metaphorically type their questions into God’s Google app, and BOOM! the Holy Ghost leads them to the exact book/chapter/verse answer. Awesome, right? No need to think. Just “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you, ” with God promising “every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” (Matthew 7:7,8)
If the Holy Spirit lives inside EVERY believer, why can’t Christians even agree on the basics: salvation, baptism, communion, and whether masturbation is a sin. There are thousands of Christian sects, each guided by the Holy Spirit, each believing that their Jesus is the way, truth, and life and their little merry band of believers is the holder of the faith once delivered to the saints. Christianity might — I say might — be taken more seriously by non-Christians if sects/churches/pastors all spoke with one voice. But, they don’t. Instead, Christianity is rife with internecine warfare, with sects and churches competing with each other over money — err — I mean souls. Jesus said that the world would know that people were his followers by their love for one another. Hey Christians….how’s that loving one another thing working out?
Supposedly, being indwelt by the Holy Ghost gives Christians the requisite power necessary to live above sin (transgression of the law of God) and the world. I say supposedly, because from my seat in the atheist pew, I don’t see any difference between Christians and non-Christians. Am I missing something here, Christians? If all the above is true, if God the Holy Spirit, really does live inside of you and is your teacher and guide, why is it that Christians don’t live any differently from unbelievers? If, as John says, in 1 John 2:3,4,15, 29, 3:6:
….we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him…. Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him….ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him….whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.
Can anyone really say that he or she is a Christian? 1 John 3:8 states that anyone who sins is of the devil! Can someone be a Christians AND a child of the devil? At this point, Evangelical readers likely will say, Bruce, Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven. Christians are works in progress. Wait a minute, what about all the verses mentioned above? What about what 1 John 3:10 says, “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.” John says the difference between God’s children and Satan’s children is behavior. The writer of book of Matthew says in chapter 25 that on judgment day it will be what people did and did not do that will determine where they spend eternity.
I am sure that I will hear from Evangelicals who will castigate me for wrongly interpreting the Bible. After all, I don’t have the Holy Spirit living inside of me, so how can I possibly tell others what the Bible says and means. Well, I just did. So much for needing the Holy Ghost to know what the Bible says. The aforementioned verses aren’t ambiguous, so what conclusions should unbelievers come to when observing how Evangelicals live their day-to-day lives? At best, we can conclude that Christians are, in every way, just like unbelievers; that if the Holy Spirit lives inside of believers he is fast asleep or on vacation; that Christianity has no moral or ethical authority, given that Christians themselves can’t practice what they preach.
If you are an Evangelical, think about the notion that God lives inside of you; that the Bible is some sort of Gnostic book that can’t be understood by six-sevenths of the human race; that only the saved understand what the Bible teaches. Do you REALLY believe things? Do you really believe that the moment I left Christianity that I lost the ability to understand the teachings of the Bible; that decades of reading and study disappeared from my memory, never to be remembered again? In what other realm do we see this kind of thinking?
Sadly, Evangelicals, unlike liberal and progressive Christians, stubbornly hold on to their literalistic interpretations of the Bible — interpretations that force them to endorse, support, and defend silly beliefs, no matter how stupid and ignorant it makes them look. There is little that any of us can do to reach people who think they know the punch line for the biggest joke in history. While mere worldlings feast on the plethora of literature available today, Evangelicals scour the pages of a book deemed inexhaustible, hoping to find Bronze age wisdom for twenty-first century living.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.
Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.
I’m not completely sure when I first started realizing that the enormous amount of suffering in the world, so much of it completely gratuitous, is a problem for anyone who believes that there is a loving and powerful God who is in control of what happens. Before reflecting on the evolution of my own thinking on the problem from years ago, let me stress a couple of points.
First I am talking about enormous suffering. I am not talking about the small and even not so small aches and pains of daily life – the broken wrists or torn ligaments, the fender-benders, the shattered relationships, the worries about the mortgage, or the loss of a loved one. Such things, in my view, do not call into question the existence of God, because they could well be explained if there is a loving and powerful God in charge of the world. They could, for example, be “teaching us something,” or molding our character, or making us more grateful for the (other) good things we have (no pleasure without pain), etc.
No, I’m talking about suffering in extremis, enormous suffering that helps no one, least of all the sufferer. Every seven seconds in our world a child dies of starvation. An innocent victim, suffering horribly of hunger and then dying, often abandoned and forsaken. Who does that help? It doesn’t help her. Does it help me? Does it make me appreciate all the more that nice filet mignon I had last night, with that fine bottle of Bordeaux?
And that’s just one kind of suffering – children starving to death. What about others? The birth defects, the disfiguring and debilitating accidents, the cancers and strokes, the brain tumors, the epidemics, the accidental deaths of children, the tsunamis that kill 300,000 people who were just trying to eke out an existence – and I haven’t even started on the tragedies humans create: millions of people displaced from their homes (it’s relatively easy to pass over that one when we just read it on p. 3 of the paper; but think about yourself being removed from your home, forced to wander and find sustenance for you and your family with nowhere to go and no idea of what to do. And having millions of your neighbors in the same boat), innocent casualties of war, millions tortured to death, six million Jews killed for being Jews. And so on.
My experience in my years now of talking about this kind of suffering is that people who hear such comments are all too ready to write and tell me “the answer.” They have a way of explaining why it happens that satisfies their thinking, and they can’t believe that I don’t find their explanations satisfying. I find that with simple uneducated folk and with highly trained professional philosophers.
I had a radio debate some years ago when I was in London with a rather famous professor of philosophy from Oxford University on whether the problem of suffering should cause problems for anyone who believes in God. He thought he had the answers to why there is suffering when there is a good and all powerful God in charge of the world (he himself is committed Christian). The suffering of others benefits those of us who are not experiencing their suffering, as it helps us recognize that grace that we receive and appreciate our own situations all the more. The suffering of others makes us “more noble.”
He wanted to stress this point specifically with respect to the Holocaust. It had an upside. It makes us more reflective and ennobles our lives today.
I have to say, I get rather roused up when someone tells me such things – especially when they do so with the smugness of an armchair observer of suffering. I got pretty angry in our back and forth. I simply couldn’t *believe* that he thought that innocent children were gassed for the sake of my personal nobility. It’s all about *me*. God allows such horrible and massive suffering because if he didn’t, I myself would be less noble. I simply lost my cool. It’s all fine that this fellow in his comfy confines of his cushy Oxford position felt ennobled. I (in my equally comfy confines) felt completely repulsed.
— Bart Ehrman, The Kind of Suffering That is a Problem, June 27, 2017
According to most Evangelicals, the Bible is not only inspired (breathed out) by God, it is also infallible and inerrant. Since the Bible was written by men moved by the Holy Spirit or dictated by God, it stands to reason — God being perfect in all His ways — that the Bible is perfect, without error. Some Evangelicals take the notion of inerrancy even further by saying that the King James Bible is without error. And some Evangelicals — the followers of Peter Ruckman — take it further yet by saying that even the italicized words inserted by the translators of the King James Bible are divinely inspired. Other Evangelicals, thinking of themselves as more educated than other Christians, say that the “original” manuscripts from which English translations come are what is inerrant. Translations, then, are reliable, but not inerrant (even though pastors who believe this often lead churches that are filled with people who believe their leather-bound Bibles are without error). The problem with this belief is that the “originals” don’t exist. Over the years, I ran into countless Christians who believed that these so-called “originals” existed “somewhere” and that they safely stored “somewhere.” Recently, one such ignorant Evangelical told me that I should read the Dead Sea Scrolls. In doing so, I would see that Christianity is true. Evidently, he didn’t know that the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t mention Jesus, and those who “see” Jesus in the Scrolls are either smoking too much marijuana or are importing their biased theology into the texts. Such is the level of ignorance found not only in pulpits, but in church pews.
Is the Bible in any shape or form inerrant? Of course not. Such a belief cannot rationally or intellectually be sustained. It is nothing more than wishful thinking to believe that the Bible is inerrant — straight from the mouth of God to the ears of Christians.
I have never thought that recognizing the historical and literary problems of the Bible would or should lead someone to believe there is no God. The only people who could think such a thing are either Christian fundamentalists or people who have been convinced by fundamentalists (without knowing it, in many instances) that fundamentalist Christianity is the only kind of religion that is valid, and that if the assumptions of fundamentalism is flawed, then there could be no God. What is the logic of that? So far as I can see, there is no logic at all.
Christian fundamentalism insists that every word in the Bible has been given directly by God, and that only these words can be trusted as authorities for the existence of God, for the saving doctrines of Christianity, for guidance about what to believe and how to live, and for, in short, everything having to do with religious truth and practice. For fundamentalists, in theory, if one could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that any word in the original manuscripts of the Bible was an error, than [sic] the entire edifice of their religious system collapses, and there is nothing left between that and raw atheism.
Virtually everyone who is trained in the critical study of the Bible or in serious theology thinks this is utter nonsense. And why is it that people at large – not just fundamentalists but even people who are not themselves believers – don’t realize it’s nonsense, that it literally is “non-sense”? Because fundamentalists have convinced so much of the world that their view is the only right view. It’s an amazing cultural reality. But it still makes no sense.
Look at it this way. Suppose you could show beyond any doubt that the story of Jesus walking on the water was a later legend. It didn’t really happen. Either the disciples thought they saw something that really occur, or later story tellers came up with the idea themselves as they were trying to show just how amazing Jesus was, or … or that there is some other explanation? What relevance would that have to the question of whether there was a divine power who created the universe? There is *no* necessary relevance. No necessary connection whatsoever. Who says that God could not have created the universe unless Jesus walked on water? It’s a complete non sequitur.
The vast majority of Christians throughout history – the massively vast majority of Christians – have not been fundamentalists. Most Christians in the world today are not fundamentalists. So why do we allow fundamentalists to determine what “real” Christianity is? Or what “true” Christianity is? Why do we say that if you are not a fundamentalist who maintains that every word in the Bible is literally true and historically accurate that you cannot really be a Christian?
While I question how someone can be a Christian and not believe all that the Bible says is true (perhaps this is the result of a Fundamentalist hangover), hundreds of millions believe nonetheless. I am not, contrary to what my critics suggest, anti-Christian. I am most certainly anti-Fundamentalist, but I am indifferent to the beliefs of billions of people as long as those beliefs don’t harm others. Unfortunately, many Evangelical beliefs and practices ARE harmful, and it is for this reason that I continue to write about Evangelicalism.
Inerrancy is one such harmful belief. Believing that every word of the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and true leads people to false, and at times dangerous, conclusions. Take young earth creationism — the belief that the universe was created in six literal twenty-four days, 6,022 years ago. Men such as Ken Ham continue to infect young minds with creationist beliefs which, thanks to science, we know are not true. The reason the Ken Hams of the world cannot accept what science says about the universe is because they believe the text of the Bible is inerrant. According inerrantists, the Bible, in most instances, should be read literally. Thus, Genesis 1-3 “clearly” teaches that God created the universe exactly as young earth creationists say He did. This kind of thinking intellectually harms impressionable minds. While little can be done to keep churches, Christian schools, and home schooling parents from teaching children such absurdities, we can and must make sure Evangelical zealots are barred from bringing their nonsense into public classrooms.
Peel back the issues that drive the culture war and what you will find is the notion that God has infallibly spoken on this or that social issue. Think about it for a moment: name one social hot button issue that doesn’t have Bible proof texts attached to it. Homosexuality? Same-sex marriage? Abortion? Premarital sex? Birth control? Marriage and divorce? Prayer and Bible reading in public schools? Every one of these issues is driven by the belief that the Bible is inerrant and that Christians must dutifully obey every word (though no Evangelicals that I know of believe, obey, and practice every law, command, precept, and teaching of the Bible). Removing the Good Book from the equation forces Evangelicals to contemplate these issues without appeals to Biblical authority and theology. As a secularist, I am more than ready and willing to have discussions with Christians about the important social issues of the day. All that I ask is that they leave their Bibles at home or stuffed under the front seats of their cars. In a secular state, religious texts of any kind carry no weight. What “God” says plays no part in deciding what our laws are. Evangelicals have a hard time understanding this, believing that their flavor of Christianity is the one true faith; believing that their infallible interpretation of a religious text written by their God is absolute truth. It is impossible to reach people who think like this.
While I at one time believed the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, it was not until I considered the possibility that the Bible might not be what I claimed it is, that I could then consider alternative ways of looking at the world. This is why I don’t argue about science with Evangelicals. I attack their foundational beliefs — that the Bible is not inerrant; that the Bible is not what they claim it is. Once the foundation is destroyed, it becomes much easier to engage Evangelicals on the issues they think are important. Given enough time, a patient agnostic/atheist can drive a stake into the heart of their Fundamentalist beliefs. As long as Evangelicals hang on to their “inerrant” Bibles, it is impossible to have meaningful, productive discussions with them. All anyone can do for them is present evidence that eviscerates their inerrantist beliefs. Since heaven and hell are fictions of the human mind, I am content to let knowledge do her perfect work. I know that most Evangelicals will never abandon their faith, but some will, so I am content to continue fishing for the minds of women and men. Using reason and knowledge is the only way I know of to make the world a better place. Part of making the world a better place is doing all I can to neuter Fundamentalist beliefs. Inerrancy is one such belief.
Erin Davis, a writer for the Lies Young Women Believe website, recently wrote one of the most astounding, delusional, and absurd blog posts I have ever read. Filled with assertions based on THE BIBLE SAYS, Davis’ post reflects how deeply and thoroughly Evangelicalism can negatively affect one’s ability to reason and think.
With giants (1 Sam. 17), strange creatures (Job 40:15), angels (Ps. 91:11), demons (Mark 5), and a God who is mysteriously three in one, sometimes the Bible reads like a children’s fairy tale or Hollywood screenplay. But it isn’t. It’s a history book of events that actually happened to real people. More than that, it’s a book about a very real God.
Every Word of God Proves True
Proverbs 30:5 makes this bold promise:
Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
An easy way to prove the truth found in Scripture is through the genealogies. Let me show you what I mean.
Isaiah 11:1 declares this promise, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”
There isn’t a person on the planet that God doesn’t love and care about.
That promise wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans without the genealogy found in Matthew 1:1–17 and again in Luke 3:23–38. This list starts with Abraham and ends with the birth of Christ. Smack dab in the middle we find this gem:
And Jesse the father of David the king (Matt. 1:6).
The branch Isaiah wrote about was Jesus. His words were written 800 years before Christ was born! If we skipped this genealogy, we would miss the wonder of seeing this prophecy fulfilled.
God Cares About the Little People
Ever hear of Mahalalel, Hezron, or Abijah? Probably not, but God has. He made sure their names were listed among the genealogies found in Genesis 5 and Matthew 1. Every single human since Adam has three things in common:
We are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).
We are loved by God (Jer. 31:3).
We were designed to be with God for eternity (Eccl. 3:11).
There isn’t a person on the planet that God doesn’t love and care about. The genealogies read like lists of His favorite people.
God Is Faithful.
Here’s a question I love to ask Christians who are older than me:
“Tell me about that time God let you down.”
I’ve been asking that question for years, almost every chance I get to hang out with people with a gray hair or two. I’ve never met a single person with an answer. Instead they all gush about God’s faithfulness, telling me how time and time again He has shown up in their lives.
Evidently, Davis has not studied the history of the Christian Bible, nor has she read anything about the various textual contradictions and errors found in the Biblical text. I suspect that Davis grew up in and is still a part of a religious tradition that asserts the Bible is a God-given and God-written, inspired, inerrant, and infallible text. Whether the Bible is inspired is a metaphysical claim beyond the scope of rational inquiry, but assertions that the Bible is inerrant and infallible are evidentiary claims that can be investigated. Anyone who has honestly and openly looked at the text of the Bible cannot conclude the it is an inerrant text.
Well Bruce, I have studied this issue and I still believe the Bible is inerrant. To that I say, bullshit. If someone follows the evidence wherever it leads, he or she must conclude that inerrancy cannot be sustained on rational grounds. When people claim that the Bible is inerrant, I always ask them if they have read any of Bart Ehrman’s books. Most often, the answer I receive is no. For the handful of people who say yes, my response is this: you are letting your presuppositions keep you from seeing things as they are. Biblical scholars of every stripe have concluded that the Bible has textual errors and contractions; that the Bible is internally inconsistent. It is impossible for someone to read Bart Ehrman’s books and still hang on to the belief that the Bible is inerrant.
Davis believes the Bible is “true” because the Bible says it is. This is circular logic, a common problem in Evangelical Christianity. Countless people are Christians, all the while believing the Bible is fallible and errant. They recognize that the Bible is human-written book that points the way to God, not a divine rulebook or blueprint for life. These Christians readily admit that some of what the Bible says is not true, is outdated, or inapplicable for today. While I have problems with how they come to these conclusions, I do find that this view is more intellectually honest than parroting that the Bible is inerrant.
The key to reaching Evangelicals is to get them to see that the Bible is not what they claim it is. Until Evangelicals are willing to consider that they might be wrong; that the Bible might contain errors and contradictions, there’s not much anyone can do to reach them.
Davis states that God cares about the little people. She bases this statement on the fact that numerous unknown people are mentioned in the Bible and, since God wrote the Bible, this is proof that God cares about everyone. Davis sincerely believes that God loves and cares for everyone. She believes this because the Bible says so. Again, eyes-wide-open honesty does not bear out Davis’ claim. Look around. What do you see? Do you see overwhelming evidence for the belief that God loves and cares for everyone? Of course not. At best, we see a God who is indifferent to the plight of his creation. He steps in from time to time and help Nana find her car keys, but when it comes to big-ticket issues such as war, violence, sexual assault, starvation, oppression, and Donald Trump, the Christian God is AWOL.
Davis desperately needs to believe that God loves and cares about her. I understand WHY she believes as he does. God loving and caring for Christians is the glue that holds Christianity together. No matter what happens in their lives, Evangelicals believe that God is looking out for them and that “all things work together for good.” This thinking directly conflicts with reality — shit happens, life can suck, and all credit and criticism belong to humans. God/Jesus/Holy Spirit is a fictitious middleman who keeps Evangelicals from seeing life as it is. That’s the beauty of religion. It gives people meaning and purpose, promising life after death. (Please read The Life-Changing Power of the Mythical Jesus and Never Underestimate the Power of Jesus) Believing such delusions allows Evangelicals to evade the harshness of human existence. Sadly, many people believe that it is better to believe a lie if it gives them peace and happiness. I don’t fault people who follow this path as long as they keep it to themselves. However, when they drag such nonsense into the public square and de-legitimize the lives of everyone who believes differently, I’m going to challenge, on rational grounds, their beliefs.
Davis concludes her post by saying that God (not any God, only the Evangelical God) is ALWAYS faithful. When Evangelicals talk about the faithfulness of God they mean that God always does what he says he will. If God says he will do ______________then he always does. Think of all the promises God supposedly made in the Bible. Has God infallibly kept every promise? Of course not. Any cursory examination of the lives of Christians reveals that God is NOT faithful, that he routinely fails to pay child support. When challenged on the God-is-Faithful claim, Evangelicals often respond that just because God hasn’t come through yet, doesn’t mean he won’t come through in the future. Ah yes, God will, someday, likely not today, come through. He’s God and he ALWAYS comes through.
One tool used by religionists is the promise of future rewards. According to Evangelicals, God promises believers life after death. This life after death will be one of no pain, suffering, or death. There is no proof for this claim other than THE BIBLE SAYS, but this is enough for millions and millions of people to lead them to believe that a room in Heaven awaits them after they die. So it is with claims that God is faithful. It may not, right now, seem that God is doing what he said he will, but as sure as the sun rises in the morning, God will infallibly do what he promised.
Evangelicals are much like a woman married to an abusive man. Her husband makes promises to love her more, not verbally assault her, or lay another hand on her, but never comes through. The wife stays with her man because she believes that he will, in the future, do what he promised. Fortunately, many women realize that their abusers will never change, and they file for divorce. Children often have parents who are much like the faithful God, making promises they cannot or never intend to fulfill. So it for many of us who have left Christianity. We finally came to a place that promises were not enough. We wanted action. We wanted God to act as he said he would in the Bible. We wanted our prayers answered and needs met. Our pastors told us to hang on, to keep believing, because God will, in time, come through. And if he doesn’t, he will certainly come through in the life to come. Such offloading of promise fulfillment to a future date no longer worked. We wanted a God who was, in the here and now, alive, present, and actively working in our lives.
Many former believers have said: sorry God, no more empty promises. Show yourself, and if you can’t — because you don’t exist — or won’t — because you are indifferent or don’t care — don’t expect us to live in the hope that you will, after death, fulfill your promises. One of the many reasons people deconvert is because they wake up one day and realize that what they believe is a lie; that their beliefs are based on irrational presuppositions; that God is nowhere to be found.
Several years ago, my wife and I made a detailed inventory of our past prayers. We were avid, daily, fervent prayers. We prayed tens of thousands of prayers in our lifetimes. Yet, after carefully examining our prayers, we concluded that 99.9% of our prayers went unanswered, and most of those that were could be ascribed to human instrumentation. We were left with a handful of unexplained events, and we concluded that these were not enough to justify us continuing to believe in the Christian God.
Nothing I’ve written here will likely convince heads-in-cement Evangelicals that their houses are built on faulty foundations. Certainty of belief, anchored in the notion that the Bible is an inerrant, infallible text, shuts Evangelicals off from reason. I know such a claim offends them, but I have yet to meet an Evangelical zealot who was willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. In the minds of Evangelicals, they already have the truth. Blind to evidence to the contrary, they refuse to hear any voice but their own (a voice they often think is God’s). Unable to rationalize challenges to their beliefs, Evangelicals retreat to the safe confines of faith. Once secure, they chuck proof texts at their interlocutors, reminding these uncircumcised, unwashed Philistines that God will soon show them his mighty power by eternally torturing them in the Lake of Fire.
I just now – fifteen minutes ago – came to realize with the most crystal clarity I have ever had why I cannot call myself a Christian. Of course, as most of you know, I have not called myself a Christian publicly for a very long time, twenty years or so I suppose. But a number of people tell me that they think at heart I’m a Christian, and I sometimes think of myself as a Christian agnostic/atheist. Their thinking, and mine, has been that if I do my best to follow the teachings of Jesus, in some respect I’m a Christian, even if I don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was raised from the dead, or that… or even that God exists. In fact I don’t believe all these things. But can’t I be a Christian in a different sense, one who follows Jesus’ teachings?
Fifteen minutes ago I realized with startling clarity why I don’t think so.
This afternoon in my undergraduate course on the New Testament I was lecturing on the mission and message of Jesus.
In today’s lecture I wanted to introduce, explain, and argue for the view that has been dominant among critical scholars studying Jesus for the past century, that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalypticist. I warned the students that this is not a view they will have encountered in church or in Sunday school. But there are solid reasons for thinking it is right. I tried to explain at some length what those reasons were.
But first I gave an extended account of what Jewish apocalypticists believed. The entire cosmos was divided into forces of good and evil, and everything and everyone sided with one or the other. This cosmic dualism worked itself out in a historical dualism, between the current age of this world, controlled by forces of evil, and the coming age, controlled by the forces of good. This age would not advance to be a better world, on the contrary, apocalypticists thought this world was going to get worse and worse, until literally, at the end, all hell breaks out.
But then God would intervene in an act of cosmic judgment in which he destroyed the forces of evil and set up a good kingdom here on earth, an actual physical kingdom ruled by his representative. This cataclysmic judgment would affect all people. Those who had sided with evil (and prospered as a result) would be destroyed, and those who had sided with God (and been persecuted and harmed as a result) would be rewarded.
Moreover, this future judgment applied not only to the living but also to the dead. At the end of this age God would raise everyone from the dead to face either eternal reward or eternal punishment. And so, no one should think they could side with the forces of evil, prosper as a result, become rich, powerful, and influential, and then die and get away with it. No one could get away with it. God would raise everyone from the dead for judgment, and there was not a sweet thing anyone could do to stop him.
And when would this happen? When would the judgment come? When would this new rule, the Kingdom of God, begin? “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste before you see the kingdom of God come in power.” The words of Jesus (Mark 9:1). Jesus was not talking about a kingdom you would enter when you died and went to heaven: he was referring to a kingdom here on earth, to be ruled by God . Or as he says later, when asked when the end of the age would come, “Truly I tell you, This generation will not pass away before all these things take place.”
When I finished laying it all out in my lecture, stressing that Jesus thought this all was going to happen within his own generation, I had about two minutes left, and I had a final point to make (on my PowerPoint outline): “Jesus Now and Then.” Today the idea that Jesus expected the imminent end of the age to be brought in a cataclysmic act of judgment leading to a world of peace and universal happiness is no longer preached or taught in churches (well, the vast majority of churches). But it does appear to be who Jesus really was.
I told my students they had to decide for themselves if they agreed with this scholarly view or not, after looking at all the evidence. But I stressed that they should not reject the view (historically) simply because they thought it was wrong religiously (since Jesus then would have been wrong about when the end would come). I then explained why, and it was when I gave this explanation – impromptu, off the top of my head – that I realized why it was that I was not and could not be a follower of Jesus’ teachings.
I told my students that the apocalyptic Jesus realized that ultimate reality and true meaning do not reside in this world. Following Jesus means to realize that ultimate reality resides outside this world, in a higher world, above this mundane existence that we live in the here and now. I stated this as emphatically as I could. Students surely thought I was preaching, that I was affirming this message. I made the statement as rhetorically effective as I could.
And I’m not sure I’ve ever said it this way before in my 32 years of teaching. When I said it I had two immediate mental reactions to what I had just said: (a) I realized that I really do think this is Jesus’ ultimate (apocalyptic point) and, even more graphically, (b) I don’t agree with that view at all.
My personal view is just the opposite. My view is that there *is* no realm above or outside of this one that provides meaning to life in our world. In my view this world is all there is. Yes, I know there are aspects of physical reality that are extremely odd and completely inaccessible to me. But I don’t think there is anything outside our material existence. Meaning comes from what we can value, cherish, prize, aspire to, hopeful, achieve, attain, and … love in this world. There is no transcendent truth that can make sense of our reality. Our reality is the only reality. It can either be (very) good for us or (very) bad for us. But however we experience it, it’s all there is.
That’s what I really think. I never push this view on anyone else. It’s simply my view. And I think it is diametrically (not just tangentially) different from the view of Jesus. It is completely at odds with his view. That’s why I don’t think I do subscribe to his teachings, his views, or his message (in some metaphorical way).
For lots of personal reasons I do find that sad, but I’m afraid it appears to be the case.
Spend time on Sundays at Evangelical churches and you will hear all sorts of talk about how God is intimately involved in our lives. God is everywhere, Evangelicals say, and he knows everything. Not only is God omnipresent and omniscient, he is also omnipotent! God holds the universe in the palm of his hand, Evangelical preachers say. God is the Kings of Kings, Lord of Lords, the supreme potentate of heaven and earth. He is, as Calvinists love to say, sovereign. In other words, God is in control of e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. There is no thought, word, or deed that escapes his notice. No matter where humans travel — be it to the farthest reaches of the universe or to the depths of the oceans — they can not escape God. God is the king of voyeurs, his eyes peering into the darkest corners of human existence.
This God of the Evangelicals must be one busy deity. Knowing everything, including what will happen in the future, God surely acts in ways to lessen suffering, pain, loss, and death, right? Certainly there is ample evidence for the Evangelical God’s involvement in the smallest details of life, right? While Evangelicals will certainly answer YES! to these questions, when pressed for objective, verifiable evidence for such claims, they quickly retreat to their houses of faith and claims that God’s ways are not our ways.
Theodicy — the branch of theology that [attempts to] defends God’s goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil and suffering — continues to be a big problem for Evangelicals. The more apologists attempt to defend God in light of not only evil, but also suffering, pain, and death, the less people think God is good. All people have to do is read the newspaper to realize that IF God is the powerful deity Evangelicals say he is, then he is horrible being who delights in unfeigned worship while doing nothing as countless men, women, and children face untold agony and death.
One of the marks of psychopathy is a lack of empathy. God can, if he chooses, put an end to suffering. Yet, he does, by all accounts, absolutely nothing. In 2008, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman wrote a book titled God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. Ehrman had this to say about why he wrote the book:
For most of my life I was a devout Christian, believing in God, trusting in Christ for salvation, knowing that God was actively involved in this world. During my young adulthood, I was an evangelical, with a firm belief in the Bible as the inspired and inerrant word of God. During those years I had fairly simple but commonly held views about how there can be so much pain and misery in the world. God had given us free will (we weren’t programmed like robots), but since we were free to do good we were also free to do evil—hence the Holocaust, the genocide in Cambodia, and so on. To be sure, this view did not explain all evil in the world, but a good deal of suffering was a mystery and in the end, God would make right all that was wrong.
Suffering increasingly became a problem for me and my faith. How can one explain all the pain and misery in the world if God—the creator and redeemer of all—is sovereign over it, exercising his will both on the grand scheme and in the daily workings of our lives? Why, I asked, is there such rampant starvation in the world? Why are there droughts, epidemics, hurricanes, and earthquakes? If God answers prayer, why didn’t he answer the prayers of the faithful Jews during the Holocaust? Or of the faithful Christians who also suffered torment and death at the hands of the Nazis? If God is concerned to answer my little prayers about my daily life, why didn’t he answer my and others’ big prayers when millions were being slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when a mudslide killed 30,000 Columbians in their sleep, in a matter of minutes, when disasters of all kinds caused by humans and by nature happened in the world?
Eventually, while still a Christian thinker, I came to believe that God himself is deeply concerned with suffering and intimately involved with it. The Christian message, for me, at the time, was that Jesus Christ is the revelation of God to us humans, and that in Jesus we can see how God deals with the world and relates to it. He relates to it, I thought, not by conquering it but by suffering for it. Jesus was not set on a throne in Jerusalem to rule over the Kingdom of God. He was crucified by the Romans, suffering a painful, excruciating, and humiliating death for us. What is God like? He is a God who suffers. The way he deals with suffering is by suffering both for us and alongside us.
About nine or ten years ago I came to realize that I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. I simply no longer could hold to the view—which I took to be essential to Christian faith—that God was active in the world, that he answered prayer, that he intervened on behalf of his faithful, that he brought salvation in the past and that in the future, eventually in the coming eschaton, he would set to rights all that was wrong, that he would vindicate his name and his people and bring in a good kingdom (either at our deaths or here on earth in a future utopian existence).
We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.
Ehrman states in God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer:
Eventually, though, I felt compelled to leave Christianity altogether. I did not go easily. On the contrary, I left kicking and screaming, wanting desperately to hold on to the faith I had known since childhood and had come to know intimately from my teenaged years onward. But I came to a point where I could no longer believe. It’s a very long story, but the short version is this: I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.
The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith. After many years of grappling with the problem, trying to explain it, thinking through the explanations that others have offered—some of them pat answers charming for their simplicity, others highly sophisticated and nuanced reflections of serious philosophers and theologians—after thinking about the alleged answers and continuing to wrestle with the problem, about nine or ten years ago I finally admitted defeat, came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God of my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an agnostic: I don’t “know” if there is a God; but I think that if there is one, he certainly isn’t the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world. And so I stopped going to church.
For most Evangelicals-turned-atheists, the issue of suffering looms large in their decisions to leave Christianity. When I am asked why I left Christianity, I usually point to the intellectual problems I have with Christian theology and practice. In particular, I call attention to the unsupportable notion that the Protestant Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible words of God. I generally avoid discussions about suffering and death because such engagements usually end with Evangelicals apologists telling me that the REAL reason I am no longer a Christian is the personal pain and suffering I deal with each and every day of my life. Bruce, you are just mad that God didn’t heal you, Evangelicals say. So, you quit on God, all because he wouldn’t do what you wanted him to do — heal you.
While there was a time when I would bristle at such claims, I now admit that God’s indifference towards not only the suffering of family, friends, and parishioners, but also my own suffering played a pertinent part in my deconverson. It was not THE reason, but certainly one of the reasons that I was no longer was willing to believe in the existence of the Christian God. The Bible speaks of a Jesus who healed the sick, blind, and deaf, fed the hungry, and raised the dead. Surely, if, as the Bible says, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, why is there so much suffering in the world? What better way for God to reveal himself to us than to heal the sick and feed the hungry. I am aware of all the Evangelical apologetical arguments that are used to justify God’s indifference, so don’t bother, but the fact remains that most suffering goes unrequited. As Bart Ehrman mentioned earlier, untold suffering will happen today and, come tomorrow and every other day after that, pain, sickness, and incalculable loss will test and try countless people. In fact, few of us get through this life without facing things that can and do turn our lives into piles of ashes. Despite prayers and voices crying to God for help, the triune God of the Bible acts if he lives in an area where there is no cellphone service. Christians and non-Christians alike cry to the heavens, pleading and begging its inhabitants to help them, yet all they hear is deafening silence.
Let me conclude this posts with two recent news stories that amply illustrate the indifference of God.
Mark and Megan Short with their three children
On August 6, 2016, in an apparent murder-suicide, a Pennsylvanian husband or wife murdered their spouse and three children before committing suicide. CBS News reports:
A Pennsylvania couple who were featured in news stories about their difficulties getting medication for their youngest daughter who had a heart transplant were found shot to death in their home along with their three children.
Prosecutor John Adams says an apparent “murder/suicide” note was found in the family’s Sinking Spring home Saturday. Police found a handgun near one of the adults. They didn’t say who they believe was the shooter.
Officials say the parents had had “domestic issues.” Police had gone to the home to check on the family after a call from a concerned relative who said the mom did not show up for a pre-arranged lunch date.
The victims were identified as 40-year-old Mark Short Sr., 33-year-old Megan Short; 8-year-old Lianna, 5-year-old Mark Jr., and 2-year-old Willow.
Willow had undergone a heart transplant as a baby. Her family had been featured in articles in The Reading Eagle in 2014 and The New York Times in 2015 about her condition and the family’s difficulties obtaining anti-rejection medication for her.
Once inside the home, officers discovered the family’s deceased bodies and a deceased dog in the living room area of the residence. A handgun was discovered near one of the deceased adults.
Jamison and Kathryne Pals with their three children
On July 31, 2016 a young couple with three children was headed to Palmer Lake, Colorado, “for a five-week session on learning a language and assimilating into another culture” when a semi-truck rammed the rear of their minivan killing all of them. The Omaha-Herald reports:
The semitrailer truck driver involved in a crash that claimed six lives on Interstate 80 was “inattentive and distracted by outside influences” when he rammed into a minivan “at a high rate of speed,” a Nebraska State Patrol trooper said in an arrest affidavit.
The driver, Tony Weekly Jr., 53, of Baker, Florida, was charged in Keith County Court on Tuesday with five counts of felony motor vehicle homicide — one for each member of the St. Paul, Minnesota, family who died Sunday in the fiery crash four miles west of Brule’s I-80 interchange — and a single misdemeanor count of reckless driving.
Witnesses said Weekly’s truck “did not slow down until hitting the first vehicle,” Trooper Darrell Crawford said in the arrest affidavit.
That vehicle was the minivan carrying the Pals family of Minnesota. Jamison and Kathryne Pals and their three children died as a direct result of the initial impact,” Crawford said. Before coming to rest, the vehicles’ forward momentum pushed them into a Plymouth minivan driven by Sullivan, then a Nissan sport utility vehicle and finally a Ford van.
Killed Sunday were: Jamison and Kathryne Pals, both 29, and their children, Ezra, 3; Violet, almost 2; and 2½-month-old Calvin.
The Palses intended to serve as long-term missionaries in Nagoya, Japan. They were headed to Palmer Lake, Colorado, for a five-week session on learning a language and assimilating into another culture, said Dennis Vogan, vice president of personnel development of the ministry organization WorldVenture.
“The Palses fit perfectly within our organization,” Vogan said. The missionaries in Japan “were thrilled and looking so forward to their coming,” he said.
The Palses had raised enough money to fund their mission work, which was to start in October, he said.
Rick Pals, Jamison’s father, said Tuesday that funeral services would be held at Jamison and Kathryne’s church, Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. He said the families of Jamison and Kathryne “have been very touched” by the “outpouring of sincere support” they have received.
Jamison Pals worked for just over three years as a grant writer for Feed My Starving Children. The Christian nonprofit based in Eagan, Minnesota, sends meals specially formulated for malnourished children to orphanages, schools, clinics and feeding programs around the world.
Andy Carr, the group’s vice president of marketing and development, said Jamison and Kathryne Pals were “amazing people” and good friends.
“They were the most humble and selfless people that you could ever meet,” he said. “In today’s world where it’s so much about me, me, me, it was never about them. It was always about others.”
The first story is likely to be explained in Evangelical circles as an example of human depravity. Human sinfulness leads people to do awful things, Evangelicals say. If this couple had known Jesus, perhaps things would have turned out differently!
The second story is being portrayed as an example of the “mysteries” of God. We dare not question God’s purpose and plan! Calvinist pastor John Piper attributes their deaths to the mysterious, unknown plan of the sovereign God of the universe. Evangelicals must never ask why. God knows best!
In both of these horrific, mind-numbing tragedies, one thing is for certain: God stood by and did nothing. If God can’t be counted on to rescue children and those who have devoted themselves to “serving” him, why should any of us bother to worship him? If God helps a young child through a heart transplant, only to later stand by twiddling his thumbs while this same girl is murdered, should we not at least question the actions of the compassionate, loving, kind, God who promises to never leave or forsake us?
Evangelicals should not fault people such as myself when we conclude that their God is either a work of fiction or is simply not interested in what happens to us. I have concluded that there is no God and that life can be cruel and hard. Disease, pain, hunger, violence, and death are very much a part of life, and all of us will likely be marred or broken by one or more of these things. Try as we might to escape suffering, it will track us down and arrest us, often sentencing us to lives of pain and agony. I wish things could be different, but they are what they are. All the prayers and religious pronouncements in the world won’t change the fact that people (and animals) suffer. The best we can do is to work at reducing suffering and its effects. It is up to us to alleviate the suffering of others (and our own). Waiting on God accomplishes nothing. As the stories mentioned above make clear, when it comes to things that matter, God is nowhere to be found.
Guest post by Gary. You can read Gary’s blog here.
Yesterday, I and my family spent the afternoon with some of my evangelical Christian relatives from a distant city whom we had not seen for quite some time. The last we had spoken I was a “gung-ho” evangelist for conservative Lutheranism, attempting to convert them to the “correct” version of Christianity. So if the subject of religion/faith came up, how was I going to tell them that I was no longer a conservative Lutheran; a conservative Christian; a Christian…period?
It would be awkward.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you might be surprised to learn that I had no interest in bringing up my deconversion from Christianity with these relatives. I usually love a good debate (argument) over religion or politics, but not with these people. Not on this subject. I knew it would hurt them. I knew that they genuinely care about me and the knowledge that I have “rejected Jesus” would be shocking and painful for them to hear.
Our visit remained off the topic of religion for several hours, but after a pause in the conversation, my cousin asked, “So how are things with your (Lutheran) church?”
There was silence. I could feel the tension in the air as both my father and my wife cringed and both thought to themselves, “Oh boy, here it comes!”
My father tried to play defense for me and said, “Gary isn’t going to church right now.”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“It’s probably best we don’t talk about it,” I said.
But that answer left too much hanging in the air. They needed an explanation.
So I said, “I’m now an agnostic.”
There was an uncomfortable pause.
“On what basis have you made that decision?”, they politely asked with obvious disappointment in their eyes.
And from there I tried to explain why after over forty years of being a Christian I had “abandoned” Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. I explained why I had found their evangelicalism, the religion of my childhood, so frustrating and disappointing. “It is based so much on what one feels,” I said. “In evangelical churches I was repeatedly told that if I was a true believer I would feel Jesus “move” me, “lead” me, “guide” me. I would hear an inner voice speak to me. But I never had the emotional highs that everyone else around me seemed to always be having. I never heard a voice. I became tired of the emotional roller-coaster of attempting to feel the presence of Jesus to confirm my eternal security, my salvation, and left evangelicalism.”
“That is why I loved conservative Lutheranism!” I explained. “My assurance of salvation was no longer dependent on how I felt but upon the objective act of God: his seal of salvation at my Baptism. Like Luther, I could look to my baptism as absolute proof of my salvation, not look to how I felt about my faith at the moment!
I was very happy and content as a confessional (conservative) Lutheran.
But then one day in early 2014, while surfing the internet, I came across the blog of an ex-fundamentalist Baptist pastor who had become an atheist [Bruce Gerencser]. I decided that all this man needed was to be pointed to the “correct” version of Christianity (conservative Lutheranism) and then he would abandon atheism and come back to Jesus Christ. I decided I would bring this “lost sheep” back to Jesus.
Four months later…I was an agnostic.”
“But why?” they said. “What did this man say that changed your mind?”
I then explained that this atheist ex-preacher had pointed me to the books of NT scholar Bart Ehrman. “You’ve heard of Bart Ehrman, haven’t you?” I asked.
No. They had never heard of him. (Evidence to me that they had never seriously questioned or examined the veracity of their belief system.)
“Well, Bart Ehrman is a former evangelical turned agnostic NT scholar who has written several books on the New Testament. For instance, in reading his books, I found out that the existing manuscripts of the Bible contain many scribal alterations and additions. We as evangelicals have been taught that God preserved his Word. How is it then possible that God allowed his Word, the Bible which we have on our night stands, to contain passages that the original authors never wrote?”
“That is not true! You need to read _________ and __________ (evangelical) NT scholars and they will give you the correct information!” they said. “You shouldn’t just accept the word of a few skeptical scholars.”
“But I have read the books of Christian scholars. I read the entire 800 plus page book of NT Wright on the Resurrection. I have read both sides and bottom line the evidence for the pivotal claims of evangelical and conservative Christianity, the inerrancy of the Bible and the historicity of the Resurrection, are based on false assumptions and little if any real evidence.”
“I think the problem is that Lutheranism didn’t teach you correctly about salvation…” interrupted my cousin.
“But I became a Christian when I was still a Baptist/evangelical. I believed in Jesus as my Lord and Savior and asked him to be the Lord of my life prior to being baptized. I was born again. But, now I no longer believe.”
“Then you never truly believed,” responded another cousin. “It is impossible to be saved and then not believe. You were either never saved to begin with or one day before you die, you will return to the Faith.”
“But I really did, sincerely and with all my heart, believe in Jesus as my Lord and Savior, repented of all my sins, and called on Him to be the Lord of my life!” I protested.
“No. You obviously didn’t really believe,” they agreed.
How do you prove to someone else that you really believed something? It’s impossible. (I was back to my original issue with evangelicalism: The act of salvation is internal and subjective.)
And how could I present to them all the evidence against the veracity of the supernatural claims of Christianity that I had learned over the last two years in one brief conversation? I couldn’t. So we agreed to not talk about it further. We agreed to go back to “pleasantries”. But the mood had changed. They told me that they loved me and that they would be praying for me. I told them that I loved them and that I very much appreciated their concerns.
Shortly thereafter, we said our goodbyes and parted ways.
Recently, a new reader sent me several questions she would like me to answer. Her questions and my answers follow.
How do you help a loved one even if you still believe? I am okay with my husband not believing in Christianity, and I want to be supportive, even though I remain a believer. I still love him and don’t want anyone shoving religion down his throat.
This is an interesting question. I think this is the first time a believer has written me to ask how best to help his or her unbelieving spouse, Usually I get emails from unbelievers who need help as they try to live with spouses who are still believers.
The first thing you need to do is make sure that you are really are okay with your husband’s unbelief. You say that you love him, and I am sure that you do, But, do you love him enough to grant him intellectual and psychological freedom? You don’t mention the sect that you are a part of, but if you are part of a Christian group that believes in eternal punishment and hell, you must be honest with yourself about whether you are really okay with your husband dying without becoming a Christian and going to hell.
Each of us should grant our significant other, along with family and friends, the freedom to walk their own path, even if doing so results in those we love end up far from where we are, Sadly, many unbelievers aren’t granted this freedom, and their spouses subtly attempt to evangelize them or coerce them into attending church. I know countless unbelievers who attend church every Sunday because it keeps peace in their families. These unbelievers suffer silently because of the love they have for their spouses, children, and extended family, While doing this is laudable, it does force them to surrender their intellectual integrity for the sake of others. Many unbelievers can’t do this, and often their marriages do not survive.
I encourage you to let your husband know that you really do want him to be happy. Make sure he understands that you want him to be intellectually honest and true to self. Of course, your husband should desire the same for you.
How do I deal with uber-religious family members and friends? How do I protect him from those who will try to force him to reconvert against his wishes?
First, your husband must be willing to stand his own ground. You mentioned in your email that your husband is “a real people pleaser.” Predatory Christians love to target people who are not assertive. These evangelizers will likely view your husband’s easy demeanor and politeness as openness to their preaching. Either your husband must avoid those who see him as a prospect for heaven or he must develop the necessary intellectual skills that can be used to combat their evangelizing efforts.
Second, You could tell family members that you don’t want them trying to convert your husband, that you are fine with his unbelief. Those who refuse to do as you ask are bullies. Personally, I would cut such bullies out of my life. Life is too short to allow religious zealots to treat family members as people in need of fixing. Those who value their beliefs more than having a personal, loving relationship with you and your husband are people not worth having in your life. Religion is by design divisive. All religious sects believe they have the truth. When a group believes they are the depository of truth, this necessarily means that they view others as inferior or in need of “correction.”
It is crucial that you and your husband have an open, no-subjects-off-limits discussion about his lack of belief, your belief, how best to live life in a way that grants both of you intellectual and emotional integrity, and how best to deal with evangelizing family members who don’t respect either you or your husband. Remember, if they respected you they wouldn’t continue to preach, witness, and evangelize. Sadly, many Christians believe that obeying what the Bible says or what they think God has told them is more important than respecting the personal space of others.
How can I get some good information about the truth behind Christianity from the atheist perspective?
Here are a few books that I would recommend for you to read:
In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families by Dale McGowan
Atheism For Dummies by Dale McGowan
The Evolution of God by Robert Wright
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer by Bart D. Ehrman
Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman
Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails by John W. Loftus
The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails by John W. Loftus
The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True by John W. Loftus
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
I encourage you and your husband to read these books together and then discuss them. And when I say “discuss” I mean have open, thoughtful, calm discussions. The goal is not winning an intellectual battle or converting the each other to a different viewpoint. Both of you must come to terms with what you have learned. When confronted with new facts/data/evidence/information, it is important to honestly and openly wrestle with what you have learned. Sadly, many people, when confronted with new knowledge, try to make it fit previously held beliefs or they ignore it hoping that the problem is just a lack of understanding. Many religious people are taught to never question or doubt. When confronted with contradictory or conflicting facts, such people dismiss them and run to the house of faith. DON’T do this. Be intellectually open and honest, doing business with each new bit of knowledge as it is presented.
Doing what I have prescribed here can be dangerous and disconcerting for believers. In your case, as the believer, you have a lot more to lose than does your husband. What will you do if, after reading these books, you conclude that your religious beliefs are false? Are you willing to join hands with your husband in unbelief? Perhaps your beliefs will survive. I know a few believers who have read some of the books mentioned above, yet they still believe. All of them would say that reading these books radically changed how they view Christianity and unbelievers. All of them left Evangelical/Fundamentalist/Conservative sects, seeking out inclusive sects that don’t neatly divide the world into two groups: saved and lost. Are you willing, based on what you have learned, to seek out a more friendly, inclusive expression of faith? Unitarian Universalists, for example, would gladly welcome both you and your husband into their churches.
I hope my answers to your questions are helpful. If I can be of further help, please let me know. I hope you will continue to read my blog. I think you will find that many of the readers of this blog understand your struggles, having once walked similar paths.
Evangelical number one says to an unbeliever, you need to read the Bible. Within its pages you will find the good news of the gospel. Through this message you will find the forgiveness of sins and life eternal — that is, if God decrees it to be so and you haven’t committed the unpardonable sin.
Evangelical number two says to an unbeliever, the natural (non-Christian) people cannot understand the things of God (the Bible) because they are spiritually discerned. Since non-Christians are dead in trespasses and sins and the Holy Spirit does not live inside them, they cannot understand the Bible. Unless God gives non-Christians ears to hear and eyes to see, they are unable to discern and comprehend the only supernatural book ever written, the Bible.
Confused? How about I let Leslie, a Fundamentalist Christian blogger, explain this to all of us unregenerate, unsaved enemies of God:
Have you ever tried to talk to someone about the Gospel, just to have them declare that the Bible is simply another book? Where do you go with this? …. But the question (and answer) that impacted me most was this one: What do you do when an unbeliever says the Bible is just like any other book and full of errors and contradictions?
This does seem to be a very relevant question in this day and age, does it not? The authority of scripture has been so undermined that few people believe the Bible to be the very Word of God anymore.
Dr. John) MacArthur gave a two-part answer to this question that I found incredibly encouraging. I am conveying his general thoughts (not his word for word answer) and then sharing some of my thoughts about what he said.
First, we need to stop expecting them to believe the Bible is the Word of God. Of course, they don’t. And Scripture tells us that they can’t until God unveils their eyes and shines His light on their hearts.
You may be thinking– Wait! You mean it’s not up to us to shine the light on to their hearts?
We can present it. We can share it. We can try to persuade them. But only God can give the light of His knowledge to a searching heart. …. Unbelievers can’t understand until God opens their eyes. It’s impossible.
Secondly, if someone is challenging us about the Bible, he suggested that we ask them one simple question: Have you read the Bible?
If they say no, then suggest to them that this is a very strong statement to make about a book they’ve never read. If they decide to do their own study at that point, then let the Bible speak for itself.
Isn’t that a wonderful thought?
Hebrews 4:12 confirms this: For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
The Bible will speak for itself to the unregenerate, seeking heart. God may use us to help someone to find salvation but He doesn’t need us.
According to Leslie, non-Christians cannot understand the Bible. No matter how much they read it, unless God gives them understanding, its meaning will remain beyond their ability to understand. Yet, Leslie gives a completely different answer (to be fair she is parroting Fundamentalist John MacArthur) when saying how Christians should handle non-Christians who say the Bible is filled with contradictions. Have you read the Bible?, she suggests saying to atheists and unbelievers. Leslie assumes most non-Christians haven’t read the Bible, not knowing that many unbelievers know the Bible quite well and have likely read and studied it more than most Evangelicals. That doesn’t matter of course. Why? Remember, non-Christians have no capacity to understand the Bible. But wait, didn’t Leslie say they should read it? Now you are catching on….around and around the mulberry bush we go.
What Leslie, John MacArthur and a cast of millions believe is that to understand the Bible non-Christians need some sort of Gnostic superpower. Without this supernatural ability to see and understand what the words of the Bible mean, it becomes just another book gathering dust on the bookshelf. So what about people such as myself, Robert M. Price, Dan Barker, John Loftus, and Bart Ehrman? All of us spent years reading and studying the Bible, allowing God to teach us the “real” meanings of its words. Yet, now that we no longer believe, does this mean that POOF! – all our knowledge has disappeared? I wonder if Evangelicals understand how ludicrous and silly it sounds when they suggest that non-Christians can’t understand the Bible. The Bible — truth be told — is not that complicated. Having read it from cover to cover numerous times, I know what it says. After studying it for thousands of hours and preaching almost 5,000 sermons, I think I can safely say I know the Bible. I think I am more than ready to test out of this class and move on to hard books such as George R.R. Martin’s Games of Thrones.
Leslie quotes Hebrews 4:12:
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
Based on this verse, Leslie concludes that the Bible has some sort of magic power, a living book that is able to divine human thought and intent. I wonder, is this just for Christians? I just went to the bookshelf and retrieved my trusty Cambridge, leather-bound King James Version of the Holy Bible. After removing several inches of dust, I held my Bible on the side of my head and waited for it speak. Tell me, oh Bible, what am I thinking? What are my intentions? I waited and waited, yet nothing happened. Hmm…I wonder, am I doing it wrong? Then it dawned on me…Leslie is misinterpreting the Bible. Up from the recesses of my sin-addled mind came the memory of how this verse is often misinterpreted by Evangelical parishioners and pastors alike.
Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
You see, the word of God is a HE, a HE that sees all things. This word of God is not the Bible, it is likely JESUS (see John 1). It is Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) who discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart. The Bible? It is a book, no different from any other book. Written by numerous men — many of them unknown — over hundreds of years, the Bible is a compilation of religious and historical writings. It is not, in any way, some sort of magical book that contains messages that can only be unlocked by those who have the special Evangelical decoder ring. Containing 66 books, the Bible is littered with contradictions and internal inconsistencies. All the Evangelical parlor tricks in the world can’t harmonize its message. Numerous Gods, numerous salvation plans, and numerous contradictory interpretations await those who dare to read its pages. Evangelicals such as Leslie will deny what I have written, oblivious to the true nature of the Biblical text. Filled with faith, God’s chosen ones thumb their noses at academics who dare suggest that the Bible is not what Evangelicals claim it is. In the aforementioned quote, Leslie told her readers to ask those who say the Bible has contradictions if they have ever read it. Yes, Leslie, we have. Perhaps the real question is whether Leslie has read any books by authors such as Bart Ehrman, Robert M. Price, or John Loftus. These men were all, at one time, Evangelicals. Now they are atheists. I wonder if Leslie has studied the history of Christianity or how the Bible came to be? My money is on Leslie — if she has done any study at all — not having read any books by authors outside of the narrow Fundamentalist constraints of the Evangelical box.
Often, when Evangelicals say they have studied these issues, what they really mean is that they have read apologetical or historical books written by Evangelical authors. Warned of the dangers that await those who read authors such as Bart Ehrman, Evangelicals only read books that are on the Approved Authors list. And here’s what many non-Christians don’t know. Most Evangelicals NEVER read theologically oriented books. In fact, most of them rarely read the Bible. How then do Evangelicals come to know what they believe? Simple. Every Sunday at 11:00 AM they report to Bible Knowledge Class 101, also known as Sunday Morning worship. While Evangelicals are encouraged to bring their Bibles to church so they can follow along as their pastors teach them the Bible, once the service is over, these Bibles will be returned to storage, only to retrieved the following Sunday. When Evangelicals are asked about what THEY believe, most often what they reply with is what their pastor believes. He is the arbiter and purveyor of what is true. And like lambs to the slaughter, church members follow along. Yet, according to Leslie, these illiterate Evangelicals know more about the Bible than Evangelicals-turned-atheists who spent a lifetime parsing the Greek and divining every word of its text. Only in the Christian church does this kind of thinking exist. Imagine someone saying that only a person who lived at Hogwarts could “really” understand the Harry Potter books. Why, non-Hogwarts living Potterite readers would laugh at such a thought. As with all literature, anyone willing to read and study the Bible can understand its teachings.