Why I Am No Longer a Christian
Ruminations on a spiritual journey out of and into the material world

Part 2: The Next Chapter

I say all this to emphasize that I was serious about, and satisfied with, my Christianity. Often when Christians hear that I am an ex-Christian, they assume that I must not have been a real Christian, or at least not a serious one. I understand what they mean. When I was a Christian, I thought that anyone who was a real Christian and who had experienced the life-changing power of God and His Holy Word as I had could not possibly reject it so much as to become an atheist; "backslidden" Christians, perhaps, who had been tempted by the sinful things of the world, but how could one who has experienced God as I had come to deny that He even exists? I also fully believed with absolute certainty that my belief in God would continue throughout my life. Based on what I thought I had gone through together with God, I did not see how it would be possible to forget or deny him. I recall a Bible study I was in during high school in which the youth pastor who led the group said, as a warning to us to remain steadfast in the faith, that on average about ten percent of Christians end up leaving the faith. If this held for our group of a couple dozen or so there that night, he warned, odds were that two or three of us would reject Christianity later in life. I can still clearly remember my reaction of looking around the room wondering who might be candidates for falling away, absolutely certain that I was definitely not one. In fact, I thought to myself, it just did not seem possible that anyone who was really a Christian could give it up. So, I concluded, those who leave the faith must never have been real Christians to begin with.

If I really wasn’t a real Christian (whatever your definition of a “real” Christian may happen to be), I was certainly completely convinced that I was. I genuinely believed that I was born again and that God’s Holy Spirit lived in me, that I had a personal relationship with Jesus my Creator. I also say all this to emphasize that I was not unhappy or disappointed with my experience of Christianity. Many Christians also tend to assume that I must have been in “spiritually dead” and unfulfilling churches, or that I must have been harmed by false Christians, thus I’m mad at God, or at least mad at my inaccurate notion of God, because of my experiences with false Christians who harmed me by not showing me the real God. But that was not the case. As I write this and think about my experiences as a Christian, it brings back a lot of fond memories. Nor were there any tragedies that made me mad at God. Nor was it moral rebellion. Rather, it was all in my head. By that I mean that it was intellectual problems I found, and to which I could not find answers, at least not within Christianity or even theism.

I was not seeking anything beyond what I already had, other than seeking more of what I had. But in the course of that seeking, I found things I did not expect to see. Ironically, this all ensued from my desire to know and understand God as much and as well as I possibly could. I intently followed the commandment to love God with all my mind as well as with all my heart, strength, and soul (from Mark 12:30). And, being as interested in intellectual stuff like philosophy, logic, scientific thought, and other such issues as I was in college, I thought that my gift was in that area, and thus my Christian duty was to serve God with that gift and love him with all my mind. As I have already noted, I fully believed that all truth is God's truth, and that I could be unafraid to ask any question and investigate wherever the answers led. As long as I went about it carefully and prayerfully, I thought, God would guide me, and as I knew truth better, I would know God better. But I was completely surprised by the results of my journey.

Before I relate how my Christian worldview started to unravel, I should say something about how the incident which started my questioning could have been so significant. The incident, as you will soon read, was really a rather minor one. It was the sort of thing I had experienced many times before, without seeing any problem in it, and in fact had taken to be affirmations of my faith. And previously, if the following questions had occurred to me as a result of such an experience, the standard answers would have easily cleared it up for me. But I think that my training in philosophy and logic had something to do with being able to see and evaluate things from different angles. I had been concerned about the Bible’s warning not to be taken in by the vain philosophies of the world, and I had been on a careful and prayerful lookout for ideas that might seem right to men but that would lead astray from the Truth. I did not realize until much later that in addition to learning about new ideas, I was learning new ways to evaluate ideas, and that it was this latter point that would prove to be subversive to my religious beliefs, or, as I view it now, would allow me to progress beyond those beliefs. So it was not the incident itself that started the unraveling, or even any ideas that I had learned. It was the way I was able to view and understand the incident.

My Christian worldview started to unravel at the end of my junior year (my “second” junior year; I had taken a semester off and switched programs, so I was a year behind schedule), when I went (for my third trip) to a weeklong retreat at an InterVarsity camp with the other leaders of our group to plan for the next year’s activities. I prayed long and hard for God to guide me, and the whole group, in our planning. I was convinced that God was telling me that he wanted us to do X next year. I don't remember now just what "X" was, but I had something in mind. When we got together, and prayed for God’s guidance for the group, we were all excited about the planning, and certain that God was with us and would direct us in his path. After all, serving God and following his path was, we believed, the most important thing in our lives. And we had seen God do some pretty amazing things in unifying us in one direction to serve him before. We had experienced him working in our group before, and we had faith, we had an expectation, that he would do so again.

I told the group what I believed God wanted us to do. But another member of our group said that she was convinced that God wanted us to do Y. Again, I don’t remember exactly what “Y” was, other than that it also sounded like a reasonable Christian thing to do. But I do remember that we couldn't do both X and Y at the same time: they were both laudable goals, but they were going in different directions. There was, thus, some tension in the group. By “tension” I don’t mean that there was animosity toward each other or stirrings of a fight over what we should do. Rather, there was a combination of high hopes and uncertainty of how those high hopes would be met. So we all talked and deliberated and discussed and prayed, and eventually we decided to do Z, and we all believed that God wanted us to do Z and that he had led us as a group to that decision. The tension and uncertainty vanished, and we were all relieved and excited about doing Z next year. So we all prayed and thanked and praised God, and we were all completely and unquestioningly convinced that we had just experienced God working in our group. We left the meeting on quite a spiritual high.

Now, I was already quite aware that many people think God says many conflicting things, but I had always still assumed that God was saying something to someone, and that there was a way to find out what "God's will" is. God’s will may be difficult to determine, but I was certain both that he had a plan and that there was a way for us to figure it out. But for some reason it hit me later that day that this same situation, minus the praying and God talk, occurred at the campus radio station, with which, as I mentioned earlier, I was also involved. At the radio station, we had a parallel experience of having one person say we should do A the next year, another said we should do B, and there was tension, we discussed and deliberated, and did not pray, and came up with the same type of result: we all agreed that it would be wonderful to do C, and, the tension resolved, we all happily went our merry ways, excited about our plans for the future.

It hit me that, minus the prayer and god-talk, the experiences were really the same. I had truly and (until later that day, anyway) unquestioningly believed that I had experienced God at that IVCF meeting. But perhaps I had just experienced the same excitement that I had experienced with the radio station. No, the IVCF experience was much deeper, much more profound. But perhaps I had made it seem to myself to be much more exciting and more significant by thinking that God was there working in the group. Was that extra excitement and significance due to my belief that God was working in that situation? If so, I could not use that extra depth and profundity I felt in the IVCF case to prove that God was at work there, since that depth might have its source in that very belief I was using it to prove. Or, perhaps the resolution of the tension was much more exciting and meaningful to me because IVCF and its mission were much more important to me than the radio station. Perhaps those for whom the radio station was the focus of their extracurricular activities and social lives had experienced at that meeting the depth of meaning for them that I had experienced at the IVCF meeting. Previously, I could think of no way other than appealing to God to explain something like what happened in our IVCF meeting. But now I could think of another possible explanation, and it was plausible enough that I could not dismiss it without further examination. That other explanation forced me to begin to wonder not only how to determine what God was saying, but even whether God was necessarily saying anything, and how we could know if he was. I had to be able to answer those questions in order to settle the question of which interpretation of my experiences was more accurate.

It was very obvious that many, in fact most, people had to be mistaken about what "God's will" is since there were so many incompatible views. I realized that as sure as I had been in the past of God working in my life, other people were just as sure that God, or other gods, was/were working in their lives, but in ways that contradicted what I thought God was telling me. It was very obvious that many people had conflicting and contradictory views about God's will about what God wanted and about how God was working in their lives, or even about who God was (or who the gods were). And I realized that their conflicting certainties were just as certain to them as my certainties were to me. Further, there was no objective, reliable way to determine who was right. If mine were the only form of the only religion that really changed lives, my own testimony would give me something to go on, it would add weight to my understanding of my experiences. But that clearly was not the case: I could not deny that others had been changed, and often changed radically, by their beliefs in their different versions of the Christian God or even other religions and gods. I had met such people, I lived in dorms with them, I had gotten to know them, and I could not deny what their religions had done in their lives. A Hindu friend was one of the friendliest and most reliable people I knew. A Muslim friend had his messed up life turned around by the power of Allah. Catholic friends were deeply religious and fulfilled by their very different version of Christianity. I could, as I had before, appeal to the Bible, but since so many different Christians have such different interpretations and understandings of the Bible, that just extended the problem. The Bible is supposed to be the guidebook and touchstone of the faith, the objective standard of God’s Truth, the standard by which understandings and interpretations of God’s will are to be measured. Yet it suffered from the same problems of having to understand and interpret it as does God’s alleged will. Christians of different types interpreted the Bible in conflicting ways, each group just as sure that their interpretation is the right one. Besides, other people viewed, and were inspired and changed by, other sets of scriptures that did nothing for me, while my set of scriptures did nothing for them. My certainties, I reluctantly had to admit, were not necessarily all that certain.

Obviously, at least most people have to be mistaken about what God says or wants, regardless of how sincere or certain they are. I was now able to allow myself to admit that it was possible for everyone, including me, to be mistaken about what God says or wants. Further, I realized that not only did I not know of any way to be sure of what God wanted; I could not even be sure whether God wanted anything at all. I still believed God existed, and I suspected that he probably did want something, but I suddenly lost confidence that we could reliably figure out what it was, and even had to admit the possibility that perhaps he did not want anything at all. I had to begin to be a bit suspicious of claims that there is a separate spirit of God in God's believers. I had believed, without any doubt, that I felt God in me, and that I was in communion with him and he was communicating with me. But, I had to admit, it seems that in matters of theology, morality, politics, whatever, God always invariably agrees with his followers. Even when his followers disagree with each other on so much and with such vehemence. It makes a lot of sense to conclude that religious believers must take their own notions of what an ideal human should be and call it 'God'. Since they cannot possibly all be right, I think that even theists would have to agree that most believers in various gods and various versions thereof are "worshipping" their own subjective ideals rather than a real external god. It's not far from there to the conclusion that they all do. But it still took me a long time, nearly two years, to get all the way to that conclusion.

When I asked others how to tell what God was trying to say in answer to a prayer, or even whether he was saying anything at all, all they could say was "pray about it and God will answer you." In other words, rely on subjective feelings that I had, which, I realized, I had no real way of distinguishing between my own subjectivity and the "spirit of God" I had been certain was in me. To say that this spirit was not there before and is now, therefore it must be something from outside me, is no more valid than to say that because the set of teeth now in my mouth are not the set of teeth I had as a toddler, therefore the teeth are from some outside source. Perhaps one’s own "spirit" is capable of growth and change, of newness, of increasing depth and complexity and "abundance" to degrees one would never have thought possible before. I had, I realized, seen people's lives changed by a variety of religious beliefs and by no religious beliefs at all. It is obvious that a belief does not have to be true to change a person, for a person to use it to live an "abundant" life. It need only be believed. But that meant that I could not use my own testimony, my own understanding of my experiences, my own subjective certainty, to verify the accuracy of that very understanding which was coming into question. How, then, could I be sure that my beliefs were true, that my interpretations of my experiences were accurate, that what I had been absolutely certain was God’s Spirit in me really was from God, or from anything beyond me? Perhaps what I was calling "God" and my experiences of God were actually my own maturing and growing, my own increasing capacity for experiencing emotional and psychological depth.

I could not deny the experiences I had (and still have). But I was beginning to see a different way of understanding them. Perhaps this "new life" in me that was changing me is my life, "new" in the sense that it is constantly growing and changing and renewing itself, sometimes in sudden great and unexpected spurts, most often at a slower more measured pace often hardly noticeable day by day but accumulating over the months and years to amazing new capacities. Again, if mine were the only form of the only religion that really changed lives, I'd have something to go on. But it was not. If the author of whatever set of "scriptures" that may actually exist would, in a publicly verifiable manner, state which set of alleged scriptures really were his and which interpretation of those scriptures were accurate, we'd all have something to go on. But he has not.

By their answers they gave me, it was obvious to me that my friends were not allowing themselves to fully face the real issues I was bringing up. One friend did seem to grasp what I was really asking, but all he could offer in response was to admit that he did not have an answer.

I went home that summer and did some thinking about it, but mainly I tried to avoid the issue. Yet I could not avoid it entirely. I could not “just believe” and shut up. I wanted to know, not just believe. I was very serious about wanting to know the truth. When I was a Christian, I believed without a doubt that Christianity is true. But I also thought that if somehow Christianity were not true, if somehow, contrary to anything I though was actually possible, I had been mistaken, I would want to know. Even if the truth were something horrible, I wanted to know what was true. At this point in my journey, I did not yet believe that Christianity, or at least some form of it, was not true, but my belief in my ability to know was shaken. I remember having conversations with a few friends about that, and, when pushed on the issue, most tended to admit that if Christianity is false, they did not want to know. But I did, and, still believing (though a bit tentatively now) that all truth is God's truth, and that I was supposed to love God with all my mind as well as my heart and soul and strength and whatever else it was that I was supposed to love him with, I felt a Christian obligation to investigate these questions I had about Christianity. Still, even though I was allowing myself to admit that I was coming across an increasing amount of incriminating evidence, it took a long time, nearly two years from my first spark of doubt, to finally admit to myself that there is no evidence of any real theistic God as described in the Bible, at least not one that exists outside the minds of its believers.

It did not help that when I returned to school in the fall, the pastor of the church I attended, a well respected man of God who, we thought, knew the will of God if anyone did, preached a sermon one Sunday just after he had returned from a long vacation, in which he outlined all the wonderful things God told him that he was going to do with the church and what he wanted the church to do. It was a wonderfully impressive vision. And we all praised God. Then the next week, he got up in front of the church and apologized for jumping the gun by not talking with the church elders before giving that sermon. It seems that God had been telling different things to these church elders, also impressive and important things, but going in a different direction.

Later that fall, at that same church, a man got up in front of the congregation one Sunday to praise and give thanks to God for what God had done in his life the previous week. He had been in a very serious car accident, in which the car was totaled, and which looked to witnesses like there was no way he should have even survived it. But he walked away with no more than a few scratches and bruises. And he fell apart in front of the church in inexpressible joy and gratitude that God had miraculously saved him from a should-have-been-fatal car accident. He was so full of joy and thanksgiving that he could not speak and could barely continue to stand. And a whole church of several hundred born-again Bible believing Christians who believed with certainty and beyond a shadow of any possible doubt in God and Jesus and eternal salvation all joined with this man who believed likewise and praised God and thanked God that this man did not yet have to be experiencing perfect bliss.

Before my doubts started, I would have been one of the happy praisers. But now, this situation just did not compute. It did not make sense to me that someone who was just denied a certain chance to enter eternal bliss, and had to postpone his trip "home to heaven," would be so overwhelmed with gratitude about it. It reminded me of many similar events which I had previously taken as absolutely incontrovertible evidence of God working in lives by miraculously saving them from deaths from accidents and illnesses. I thought about how Christians immediately start praying for God to heal a Christian friend who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and how they praise and thank God if the friend is healed. I had to wonder whether, regardless of what these Christians believe in their heart of hearts, do they really fully believe, deep down in their mind of minds, that eternal bliss follows death? 

Imagine being a minor league baseball player who is called up to the majors. Would you want to decline the call? Would you call the Big Guy in the front office and beg and plead for him to let you stay with your minor league team a little longer? Would you enlist the help of your teammates to convince the Big Guy to let you stay? Of course not, because, no matter how much fun you may be having playing minor league baseball, no matter how well the team is doing at the time, your goal is to get to the major leagues as soon as you can and to stay there as long as you can. Far more likely, you would be doing all you can to convince the Big Guy to call you up as soon as possible. That is how a Christian who really believes there is a “major league” beyond this one should react on receiving the news of a “promotion.” But the first thing most Christians do when diagnosed with cancer or some other such disease is to call a bunch of Christian friends and ask their friends to pray that God will cure them.

Yes, there are Christians who face death with grace and dignity. But there are also non-Christians who do. And there are Christians who react the way this man and the whole church did. From my observations, I have noticed that the older one is, the easier it tends to be to face impending death; and this is the case regardless of one’s religion, or lack thereof. Also, I have noticed that Christians as well as non-Christians, when faced with impending death, tend to go through the same stages of denial, anger, depression, and acceptance (if they have that much time). I began to wonder what real (not just perceived or believed) difference even an absolutely certain and seemingly unquestionable belief really made. I know that I believed with certainty that my knowledge and experience of God (or at least what I then interpreted as and believed to be such) really did make a difference in one’s life. By this point, however, reality had forced me to be less certain.

But how could it have all been just misinterpretations? I mean, I really saw and felt God work in my life. Then again, thinking more carefully about it, could I really say that God helped me find my keys, do well on a test, help me make a wise choice about which college to go to, help me make some friends, let me make at least some small difference in the lives of a few of the homeless people at the shelter I volunteered at? Why did God answer those prayers of mine when he ignored the prayers of Christian parents whose children were suffering from chemotherapy treatments as they were dying of leukemia? And if he did, how could I justify worshipping a God whose priorities were that screwed up? Wasn’t it horribly self-centered of me to thank God for taking time from his busy schedule to help me find my keys when he could have been saving a child from being raped? Maybe I found my keys because I looked for them. Maybe I did well on my test because I studied. Maybe I spent a lot of time comparing colleges, maybe I spent a lot of time getting to know other people, maybe my own small efforts to help a homeless family make it through a rough stretch while they looked for a new job and a new affordable place to live, maybe that was enough on its own. Would any of it have happened if I had done nothing but prayed? Would it have happened had I looked, studied, helped, and not prayed? I had always been taught that it was sinful pride to take credit for the good that God was doing through me. But which is really more arrogant: to take credit for that which I am able to accomplish on my own, or to conclude that The God Of The Universe took such a special interest in me that he helped me find my keys while he ignored a whole city inundated by a flood? It seemed to make more sense to conclude that what I thought of as God’s involvement was just my own involvement.

But what about my initial conversion experience? Hadn’t I felt a power unlike anything I had felt before? And hadn’t I really felt powerful, deeply moving experiences since? Perhaps I was misunderstanding things, but how could I deny these experiences? I knew they were real. I could not deny that. So how could I make sense of those experiences without appealing to God working in my life? God had to be working in my life. God had to have been the one who changed, and continued to change, me. How could I be wrong about that?

To examine that question, I’ll start by drawing an analogy of a conversion experience. I have read very many books and heard very many ideas on many subjects in philosophy, history, social sciences, and sciences. I can learn at least something from just about all of them. Many of them do not make much sense to me, and I think they are wrong or misguided. But many books I have read have resonated with me, they have taught me new ways to look at things, ways which make sense to me and seem to make sense of the subjects they discuss. When I learn these new ways of seeing things, something sort of clicks in my mind, and lots of previously scattered thoughts, experiences, and pieces of information come together in a way they never had before. It can be a very profound and moving feeling when that happens.

I can recall, for one example, a sociology/history book I read many years ago which posited a recurring cycle in history. When I read it, the thesis and its explication resonated with me. I began to look at history and at current events from the perspective of this thesis, and I was able to find many things which fit the thesis quite well. Other things took more examining and thought, but could be seen or interpreted in ways which seemed to fit this thesis. It was, at least to my mind, a very elegant thesis which made sense, and it seemed fitting to me for it to be true. It would just sort of really be neat for it to be true. I kind of wanted it to be true. This was especially the case since, if these recurring cycles kept cycling, one could see a general outline (thought of course not in any sense in specific details) of what the future could be like. How neat would that be?! But, of course, there is also evidence against the thesis, and not all details can really reasonably be made to fit it. But it still affects the way I think, and, though I think it has its limitations, I think that there is at least something to it.

This resonating experience is not at all uncommon. And it is not at all always right. Many many theories have been proposed to explain various things and events, and these theories seem to have everything going for them and to fit all the known facts, and they appear to be very elegant theories, and it would be just so neat and cool if they were true. But, on further investigation, they often end up being falsified by further tests, experiments, or evidence, or other and better theories are developed. So, the experience one has when one learns a new way of viewing things and things seem to fall into place and make sense is no guarantee that the thesis itself is correct.

But suppose that after I had read this book, I started going to two or three weekly meetings to gather with others who read it and with whom it had resonated and who believed and accepted its thesis. Suppose that at these meetings we would read and discuss passages from the book, and we would look at history and current events to find things to confirm the thesis. Now, in a group like that, you are bound to find someone to come up with a creative enough interpretation of anything to find a way to fit any event or fact into this perspective. And if the rest of the group was ready and willing to believe that everything can be viewed, and viewed truthfully, from this perspective, and that this perspective was in fact the only way to view things truthfully, then we would all accept those interpretations. Suppose that, since the book and its thesis so strongly resonated with us, and since we were able to fit so many things into the thesis, we concluded that the book must be completely right, and it must be the only way to view things truthfully. Suppose also that because of the consequences of this thesis being true, i.e. that we thought that we would be able to have a general understanding of how things would unfold in the future, we really wanted for the thesis to be true. Wouldn't it then be likely that whenever we found any "apparent" discrepancies in the book, or any "apparent" facts that "seemed" to run counter to the thesis, we would believe that we were misinterpreting them, and we would perform whatever mental gymnastics necessary to save the thesis?

I'm sure you can tell where I am going with this, so let's go ahead and go there. Let's look at a typical born again religious experience. You grow up in a society in which the Bible is generally respected but generally not read. Or, perhaps you grow up in a family in which the Bible is revered and read often. Or at least you know that some other society takes this stuff seriously. In any case, you have a background of hearing that this book is supposed to be the word of God, and that there is a god who could have such a word in the first place, and that this god is good and the source of goodness, etc. etc. Then along comes an evangelizer or few. These evangelists could be strangers, but more likely they are friends or relatives, people you know, people you like and respect and trust, people you have no reason to think are trying to deceive you.

They present to you a prepackaged gospel message with a few relevant scriptures taken from various places and put together to tell a coherent story of God, sin, separation from God, a sacrifice, redemption, salvation, etc. Now, you know you have done bad things. You have heard that God is supposed to be perfect. So, you agree, since you are not perfect, you are unworthy of being in this God's presence. Etc., etc. It makes sense. It resonates with you. It puts things in a perspective you had not thought of before, it organizes a variety of previously unconnected facts and events in a seemingly coherent way. You are moved by your experience. And the evangelizers tell you that what you feel is God working in you. Now, you know you had an experience. And this experience was due to hearing what these people were telling you. And these people say they expected that you would have such an experience, and they told you that the experience is from God. So, you learn from them to interpret the experience as being an experience of God.

You also hear from them that there is a hell, and that in your present state, hell is your destiny. But there is also a heaven, a place of perfect bliss, which could be your destiny if you submit to God. Since the other parts of this thesis, about being a sinner and thus not perfect, about not knowing or being sure of the future, life after death, etc., has all seemed true and has resonated with you, you go along with this, too. If the thesis was right about the other points, it must be right about this, too. So, you fear going to hell, and you desire going to heaven. And you have been told that at this point, hell is your destiny, but if you pray this prayer, your destiny will be changed. So far, the story has made sense, and these are people who are sincere and you do not have any reason to believe that they are trying to deceive you. So you pray the prayer.

You now believe that your destiny has been changed. As a result, you feel a great relief that you are no longer destined for hell, and you are excited about being destined for heaven. You feel great; you feel wonderful; you feel uplifted; you feel as though a huge burden has been lifted from you. And you know with certainty that these feelings, these experiences, did in fact really happen to you. And these people tell you that the feeling is due to God filling you with His Spirit. Since the feeling was real, and since it resulted from what these people told you, and they told you to expect such a feeling, you think you have every reason to believe that they know what they are talking about when they explain the feeling to you. So you accept their interpretation of the experience: it was God working in your life, filling you with His Holy Spirit.

Social psychology, and specifically examinations of socially learned interpretations of private, personal experiences, is a fascinating subject for anyone who has had a born again religious experience. I know for sure that I had experiences. I know that reading the Bible, praying, fellowshipping with other Christians, etc., all had real effects on me: I was genuinely moved in deep and profound ways. I do not at all doubt that others have had the same types of experiences. What I now doubt is the socially learned interpretations of those experiences. And I started doubting at that IVCF meeting when, at least on the surface, the same sort of thing happened there that had happened at a nonreligious meeting. I was finally able to see that perhaps the part about God being involved was just an interpretation I had learned to impose on certain types of events in certain settings. And I realized that it is possible for such interpretations to be wrong. The same things, minus the learned proclivity to attribute such occurrences to God, had happened in nonreligious settings.

Yes, I thought that the religious experiences were more profound and deeper, but could that extra profundity be a result of an added push the experiences received from the very act of attributing them to God? Could I really be sure that this attribution in a religious setting was accurate? Was I sure that my learned interpretations of my personal religious experiences were really accurate and true? Was I sure of the truth of what I had interpreted as born-again Christianity? This also relates to the questions I had about knowing God's will and knowing what God was trying to tell me and others. Perhaps what I took to be God speaking to me was just my ideas I came up with in the context of praying and reading the Bible; perhaps I had just learned from others to attribute such ideas in such contexts to God's trying to speak to me and to let me know His will. If so, this would certainly explain why so many people have such conflicting views on what God says.

As I previously mentioned, I recognized that the problems I was having with Christianity and with knowing God’s will extended to the Bible, since I knew that many people interpreted many parts of the Bible in very different ways. But the Bible seemed to be my last hope for a way to find an objectively reliable guide through my questions. I knew, though, that I had to be rigorous in my examinations, to get to what, if anything, was truly an objectively and verifiably correct understanding of its message from God. I had to be wary of my own subjectivity interfering with my interpretations of its words. Since people with differing interpretations are all certain that their own interpretations are correct, it is definitely the case that one's own subjective certainty of the correctness of one's interpretation is not enough. The problem is compounded by the fact that there are other religions with other holy scriptures which claim to be the word of God or the gods. What evidence did I really have that the Bible is accurate in its claim to be the word of God when, for example, the Koran made the same claim, and many people believe its claims? Again, I knew people who claimed to have been changed by Allah, or by the Jehovah's Witnesses Jesus (a false Jesus, according to the groups I was in); and I could not deny that they had been changed by their beliefs. Obviously, then, people can be changed, and changed for the better, by false beliefs. So, how could I use what I believed to be God's working in my life to be evidence even that the Bible really is from God, much less that my understanding of it was correct?

So I had to examine the Bible as rigorously and critically and honestly as I could. I had to examine it by the same standards as I examined any other text. I could no longer approach it with deference unlike how I approached anything else. If my approach to the Bible assumed it is the word of God, and if I did not allow myself to examine or question that assumption, then I would blind myself to any contrary evidence. Scholars approach historical documents with an attitude of “doubt until demonstrated reliable, and then rely on it only to the extent it is so demonstrated.” If indeed the Bible is the True Word of God, it should be able to withstand such treatment and its divine origin would be reliably demonstrated, and its superiority to other writings would be evident. And if indeed it is the True Word of God, how could I really know that for sure unless I had tested it and seen it pass the test?

As is the case with most born-again Evangelicals, I believed that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. I was aware of at least some of the “difficulties” in many passages, such as the differing genealogies in Matthew and Luke, and of the convoluted attempts to answer skeptics who pointed out such difficulties. It's amazing what a little creative interpretation, combined with appropriate narrowing or expanding or ignoring or adding to context, can do for an inerrantist's cause. But, as with all interpretations of the Bible, I had to start questioning these: they seemed plausible enough if you were already wedded to the conclusion that the Bible must be inerrant and must have no contradictions. But I began to see that there was no way these interpretations made sense if you did not already believe in the complete validity and reliability of the Bible. I realized that these “answers” to the contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible are unconvincing for anyone, even the believers: they were inadequate to convince someone who was not already convinced, and someone who was already convinced was already convinced and thus did not need them.

As I started my reexamination of the Bible, I recalled a question that popped into my mind when preparing to lead a Bible study on part of the Gospel of John. In the first chapter, it includes the story of how Jesus began calling his disciples. According to John, Jesus found Andrew among John the Baptist’s followers. Andrew followed Jesus, and then went to get his brother, Simon. I recalled having thought at this moment “wait, that’s odd, I thought that some other gospel said Jesus met both Andrew and Simon together while they were fishing, and called them to be fishers of men.” I remembered wondering about that, and thinking that I should do a parallel reading of the gospels to see how the stories fit together. I of course assumed that they did fit together. After all, there are editions of the Bible such as the Schofield Reference Bible which list the parallel passages in the other gospels which told the same story; why in the world would Christian Bible publishers make it so easy to find contradictions if the contradictions really were there? I still thought it would be instructive to read the gospels in parallel, thinking that it would just strengthen my faith and understanding, but I did not think it was anything crucial since of course the different accounts were completely compatible.

But now, I realized that I had to examine that assumption. And looking at the different tellings of this story, I had to admit that the assumption did not hold up. Matthew does indeed contradict John’s account of how Andrew and Simon are called. They also differ in their claims of whether Jesus started preaching and collecting disciples before or after John the Baptist was arrested and put in prison. I found that parallel examinations of different accounts of the same events was a very effective way of dispelling my belief that the Bible is inerrant. Examining the resurrection accounts in the last chapter or two in the four gospels and the first part of Acts along with the few bits Paul mentions yields a long list of incompatible claims. The Samuels, Kings, and Chronicles in the Old Testament retell, and rewrite along the way, many stories. One interesting example of a revision is the story in 2 Samuel 24 when God moved David to take a census, then it turns out that it was sinful for David to have taken a census (even though God does not lead people to sin according to James 1:13), and then God punishes David for this sinful act by killing 70,000 other people. 1 Chronicles 20 retells this story with Satan in the role of inciting David to sin by taking a census, thus revising the earlier version to get God off that hook. However, God still punishes David by killing 70,000 people whose only apparent crime was to have been among those David counted in his somehow sinful census. And there are plenty of other atrocities committed by God or at his command, such as in 1 Samuel 15 when God commands Saul and his army to slaughter all the Amalekites, even the children and infants, and even their animals, because their ancestors had done something to displease God several centuries earlier (though God had said in Deuteronomy 24:16 that children should not be punished for sins of the fathers). And in Numbers 31, God ordered all the Midianites killed except for the young virgin females. Or the Exodus story when the Egyptian Pharaoh was repeatedly ready and willing to let Moses and his people go, until God hardened his heart, and then God punished him for his hardened heart by sending plagues or killing children throughout all of Egypt.

As I discovered on closer review, even the message of salvation and what was required of Christ’s followers is far from clear, though this should be obvious to anyone who thinks about why there are so many different denominations of Christianity with so many conflicting views on how to attain salvation and how to live as a Christian. As an evangelical Protestant, I had always been taught to read James’s statements about “faith without works is dead” in light of Paul’s claims about salvation coming through faith and not of works. But James does not just say that faith without works is dead; he says that we are justified by what we do, by our works, and not by faith alone. Had I been raised in some other group of Christians, such as among many Catholics, I would have been taught to read and interpret Paul in light of James. But starting with the assumption that nothing in the Bible can contradict anything else and therefore any apparent contradiction can be explained away by reading one passage in light of the other does nothing but pretend that one such passage (such as James’s claims on works) does not really mean what it says, it really means what another passage says (such as Paul’s claims on faith). Yet that method can be used to “prove” that the Koran is inerrant, or that War and Peace is inerrant, or that Snoopy Come Home is inerrant. And it does nothing to answer the question of, even if one passage should be read and interpreted in light of another, which passage should be read in terms of which. And it does nothing to change the fact that what James said about faith and works contradicts what Paul said about faith and works.

There are always dodges and attempts to explain away the contradictions and incompatibilities, but they all rely on pretending that one or another part of the Bible says something other than what it really says, or resorting to labeling it a “mystery of faith.” I can listen to people who have an unquestionable assumption that there are no contradictions in the Bible, or I can look at the Bible itself and see the contradictions for myself. Why should I take their word for what the Bible says over what the Bible actually says? I do not want to speculate now on why fundamentalist Christians (including me when I was one) do not allow themselves to see the obvious. Whatever the reasons, the problems in the Bible are obvious, and I cannot take seriously the arguments of anyone who denies that. I know the Bible far too well to think that it does not have any errors, contradictions, or absurdities in it. They might as well be making arguments based on the claim that no birds can fly. I’ve seen birds fly, so I can’t take such arguments seriously. I do want to say, however, that, given all the problems that even fundamentalist Christians themselves admit are at least “difficulties,” the Bible began to make a lot more sense to me when I started looking at it as a product of many different humans with different perspectives on the evolving religious tradition in which they were writing than it does as The Inerrant Word of God. This became even more the case as I was taking a class on “Themes in the Hebrew Bible” which examined the Bible as set of historical documents, and with the same techniques and standards as historians examine any ancient documents. Again, it could only be by applying the same standards to the Bible as to other ancient documents that one could reliably conclude whether it is the True Word of God. But when so examined, it appears far more likely to be of human origins than divine. One would expect God could do much better. If there is a perfect God, the Bible does not measure up to the standards one would expect His Word would achieve.

I also want to make a brief comment on more theologically liberal interpretations of the Bible. Many Christians admit that the Bible is the work of humans who were expressing their own fallible understandings of God. On this view, the Bible can be said to have been inspired by God in much the same way that a tree can be said to have inspired a poem. That may be true, but if so, it renders the Bible no more necessarily reliable as a guide for life or a guide to God than any other human writer or set of writers, and at least potentially a lot less reliable than the writings of those who have studied much more philosophy, science, history, etc than did the writers and compilers of the Bible. Besides, it is typically not theologically liberal Christians who preach at me and insist that I must view the world exactly as they do, so this extimony is not aimed at them.

But even if an evangelical were to give up the claim that the Bible is inerrant, one could still respond to me, as I used to ask when I was evangelizing, why would the apostles have died for what they knew to be a lie? Okay, so the gospel writers might not have written perfectly accurate documents. Still, they were eyewitnesses or knew eyewitnesses, so they must have gotten it at least largely correct. Also, they were martyred for their faith; why wouldn’t they have recanted if they knew it was a lie? Even if their writings are not totally without error, they must have been right in their claim that Jesus was God and did rise again.

There are many problems with this response, however. First, it is hard to take it seriously from someone who is not a Mormon, since the same thing can be said of Joseph Smith and many of his closest disciples who would have known if Smith’s preaching was a sham. Yet they faced persecution and even death without recanting. While in jail, Joseph Smith was attacked by a mob trying to lynch him because of his religious teachings. He could have at any time then or before, when he knew his life was in danger, when the crowd was approaching, whenever, recanted his claims and confessed his sins. But he didn’t. He held fast to the end. If anyone would have known whether he had been lying about the Book of Mormon, it would have been him. The same could be said for Jim Jones, for the Heaven’s Gate cult, and so many other martyrs who would have known the falsity of their claims for which they knew they were about to die. So, if you wonder why the apostles would die for a lie, tell me why any of these others would and you will likely have my answer to your question. Besides, in the case of the apostles, we do not even have eyewitness accounts of their killings, as we do in the case of Joseph Smith and many others. All we have are anonymous traditions, which often conflict with each other (Matthew died in so many ways and in so many places he had more lives than a proverbial cat). So we cannot even be sure they died for their beliefs, as we can with Joseph Smith and many others.

In addition, there are good reasons to conclude that the gospels are not accurate histories written by eyewitnesses in the first place. I have often heard it claimed, and used to believe and claim myself before I investigated the evidence, that there is as much historical evidence for Jesus as there is for George Washington, Napoleon, or Julius Caesar. It should be obvious to anyone with an understanding of how history is done that this is not the case. In Washington’s case, we have original documents in his handwriting and with his signature. Even if you want to claim that they are all forged (and there are very good reasons to conclude that they are genuine), we do not even have forged documents that claim to have been written by Jesus. We do not even have copies of copies of anything written by Jesus, as we do in the case of Caesar. There are no photographs of Washington, but there are paintings of him, paintings for which he actually posed in the presence of a painter. Caesar’s image is engraved on coins on display in museums around the world. The oldest paintings depicting Jesus are from centuries after his death, with his image reflecting the artists’ imaginations. In addition to writings about Washington by his followers and admirers, we have writings about him from his enemies, such as British generals and political leaders, and also writings by disinterested observers reporting the news of their day. For Jesus, all we have are writings by loyal followers already committed to one or another set of beliefs about him.

The historical accuracy of those writings by Jesus’s loyal followers are also suspect for a number of reasons. Tradition claims the gospels of Matthew and John were written by actual disciples, and those of Mark and Luke by associates of actual disciples. But that is what tradition claims. The gospels themselves are not signed; they are anonymous. Further, they are not even written as primary accounts. Paul, for example, in his letters writes about "I went there and we did this," as you would expect from a firsthand account. The gospels are not written at all like firsthand accounts are written. Then there is the problem of why Matthew, if he was an actual eyewitness, would have used Mark as one of his major sources. Why not just write his own account rather than rewrite (and alter along the way) the account of someone who was not an actual eyewitness? If he needed to jog his memory, why not use Peter's own account rather than Mark's account of what Peter told him? That brings up the question of why Mark would have written a gospel based on Peter's testimony (as tradition, not the Gospel of Mark, claims) when Peter wrote a gospel of his own. And this leads to yet another problem: no contemporary Christians accept Peter’s gospel, or Thomas’s gospel, as legitimate; they are not included in the Christian Bible, even though they were eyewitnesses. On what basis, besides a tradition which developed a century or so after any possible eyewitnesses and associates of eyewitnesses were long gone? Yes, the gospels themselves were written before the traditions around them developed, but even they came fairly late in the game. Only the most theologically conservative of scholars, those who came to the issue with their commitments already made and who, unlike many others like them, were able to maintain their commitments in the face of the evidence to the contrary, believe that even the earliest of the Gospels, that of Mark, was written before the early 70s AD, and the others came a few or several decades later. Matthew and John would have been very old men.

Besides all that, it is highly unlikely that there would be a teacher who, over a three year period, was popular enough to draw tens of thousands of followers and listeners from many nations, whose followers believed he worked many wondrous miracles, and that there would not be a single contemporary first-hand account of any of it. How likely is it that Herod could have killed all the infant boys in a town and not one of his enemies and detractors who carefully chronicled his many crimes, even quite trivial ones, would not have even hinted at this one? How likely is it that zombies could have been walking through Jerusalem and no one at the time would have thought it worth writing about? I think it is far more likely that "Matthew" and company made up such stories, or embellished oral traditions that had been developing for decades before being written down, than that such things would have gone completely unremarked on by the historians and chroniclers of the time. The heavy reliance that evangelical apologists place on the two very brief, cryptic, and very likely at least modified if not wholly fabricated references to Jesus by Josephus (who was not born until 37 AD, so he could not even have been an eyewitness) only underscores the complete lack of contemporary accounts.

Note that this is not an argument against the possibility, or even the plausibility, of miracles and then a rejection of the gospels as accurate history on that basis. I'll grant that if there is a god, such miraculous occurrences are certainly possible, and even likely. But even if there is a god, I do not see how it is possible, and certainly extremely far from likely, that nobody in Jerusalem (a relatively large and literate town, in a time from which we have the writings of several contemporary and near-contemporary chroniclers) would have written about Matthew's alleged zombies, or at least mentioned that some crazies in town were claiming that they had talked with dead people who had gotten out of their graves. Or mentioned anything else from the later legendary accounts of Jesus. Not even a god could pull off a miracle like that. In other words, if the Bible stories were true, they would not be the only accounts of the events.

If you doubt these conclusions about the origin of the stories of Jesus, you have an enormous weight of New Testament scholarship, written primarily by people who consider themselves Christians, against you. But you do not even need that scholarship: the Bible itself is a sufficient witness against its allegedly divine origin. As I began exploring this scholarship, and to read the Bible with new eyes, it was only with great reluctance that I had to admit that there were serious problems with my previous beliefs about the Bible. I did not want to come to these conclusions. But I had to be honest with the evidence I was finding.

 

 

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