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 indwelling 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 that behavior is evidence of 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.
New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman tackles unbelievers not understanding the Bible in a post titled Does a Person Need the Holy Spirit to Interpret the Bible?
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 Christian 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 the 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 these 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.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.
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