Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How an Apologist Ended My Christianity

I'm in many ways indebted to my friend and apologetics mentor for my atheism. A guy named Jim. It's a fact. Without his sharp and logical mind I really don't know if I'd have changed my view. He may not want to know that, but it's true.

We often debated theological points, especially controversial ones, and I used that to develop my critical thinking skills. One time I confronted him with an apparent problem in the Bible. At Mt 23:35 Jesus is claimed to have said that Zechariah son of Barachiah was murdered at the temple. But if we look it up we find that the Zechariah killed at the temple wasn't the son of Barachiah. That was a different Zechariah. The one killed at the temple was the son of Jehoiada.

I combed the net to find a plausible answer and discovered JP Holding. I admitted that Holding's answer was possible. But is it plausible? A reasonable person could conclude it was wrong anyway. And I really think it looks wrong. Can the Bible be wrong? I was genuinely on the verge here. Bible contradictions were killing me.

Jim tried to make Holding's answer seem more plausible, but it was tough. Then a light bulb went off in his head. It's gotta be right. Here's why. Jesus rose from the dead, right? So if he did then whatever he would say would have to be right, right? There's no question Jesus believed at least the OT was perfect and without error. So any difficulties I have with that must be dismissed. Likewise for the NT. Jesus promised further revelation, and if this NT isn't that revelation, what is? It's gotta be. And so it must be right.

But if the NT authors mistakenly recorded Jesus words at Mt 23:35 maybe they mistakenly recorded his words when he treated the OT as if it was perfect. That's what I suggested. Well, that's a dead end. Jesus' treatment of the OT as perfect is pretty consistent throughout the gospels. If these authors can't even get that right, then they can't get even basic stuff right. Might as well just throw the NT out and not even be a Christian. We know nothing about Jesus anyway. The NT is completely unreliable.

I was convinced. However implausible an explanation may sound with regards to an OT contradiction, that explanation must be accepted. Otherwise Jesus is wrong. And Jesus can't be wrong. He's raised from the dead.

That argument literally retained me in the Christian fold for another year. Without it I might have stayed, but I would have rejected inerrancy. But the logic was sound. The OT had to be right because Jesus was raised. And if we know anything about his teachings we know he regarded the OT as the word of God and true.

I hated that the Bible looked contradictory and mistaken sometimes and so I sort of avoided studying it after that discussion. But after about a year I realized that I couldn't allow myself to be afraid of it. Since Jesus is raised the Bible must be true. So I need to get in there and read it and just figure out how it must be true.

And so I did. And you can guess what I realized. It was definitely not true. Now, I'd have loved to continue to believe that Jesus was raised and simultaneously believe that the Bible wasn't always right. But thanks to Jim I knew right away I couldn't do that. Everything that Jesus said must be true because he was raised. Given that some of the things he said weren't true, what does that mean? Either he wasn't raised or the NT is not a reliable record of what he said and did. Either option ends my Christianity.

So here I am with this realization. I can't reject inerrancy and accept the resurrection. So I put this to Jim. You know what he said? Suddenly it was possible to reject inerrancy and accept the resurrection.

How is this possible. I said "Jim, this is your argument, not mine. You are the one that convinced me that I cannot reject inerrancy and accept the resurrection. How can you say this?"

Nope. You don't need to believe inerrancy and accept the resurrection.

I was totally blown away. And I pressured him with his own logic. But he wouldn't budge. It was surprising. And unusual for him. Usually when we disagreed with each other we would discuss it and reach agreement. He valued the logical process as I did. We both knew that the conclusions follow from the logic. So if the logic is there the conclusions must follow. It was the first time that I really believed he would no longer subscribe to that. The conclusions would come first. The logic now follows.

I felt a strong need to fix these sorts of things back in the day. I pressured him constantly. It bothered me that people believed the wrong things.

But these days I don't think that. I think that mindset was a product of my religious upbringing. Jesus is Truth, so believing Truth was important. Looking back though I know that religious belief is very important for Jim's level of happiness. At least his present happiness. Rejecting it disrupts his entire familial situation. Why bother?

I'm afraid that Jim perceived me as a threat to both his own happiness and that of his wife. So to some degree a wall went up at that point. I believe Jim has abandoned apologetic study. We used to also enjoy debating various issues, but that's out the window also. I think he feels like I used to feel. Looking into this stuff is dangerous. It risks your entire marriage.

And I know this sounds arrogant, but it takes a certain level of delusion and certain willingness to accept sophistry to retain an inerrantist worldview and to Jim's credit I think he lacks that. There are some people that could study these issues and genuinely feel comfortable with J.P. Holding's answers. Jim may not be able to do that if he looked at these things in more depth.

To fill that intellectual void it looks to me like he's turned to sports. He knows all about the college football recruiting situation, which head coach is ideal, etc. I think humans have a need to keep their mind active. Sports is a ready means of retaining mental activity without thinking on something that would rock the boat. Which is why I pay almost no attention to sports any more.


MKR said...

Two questions:

(1) What do you mean by "Holding's answer"? The page at Tekton to which you refer offers six possible solutions to the problem of Matthew 23:35 and does not, so far as I can tell, single out one of them. Do you mean all six?

(2) "Jesus rose from the dead, right? So if he did then whatever he would say would have to be right, right?" The connection between premise and conclusion in this argument eludes me completely. I do not understand why you found it so irresistible.

Jon said...

Yeah, I do mean all six. In a sense there are two possibilities. The Bible is either erroneous or it isn't. There are several ways in which it could be error free. It's not that I know which of the six is actually true. The question is how plausible is it that one of the six is true.

Suppose you told me that a miracle happened and God restored your severed limb. There are several naturalistic explanations. Maybe you are lying. Maybe you are deluded. Maybe you are playing a joke. Though I don't know precisely which is true I conclude that the sum total of all the naturalistic explanations combined means a natural explanation is more plausible than a supernatural one. That's the same logic I'm using above.

With regards to your second question, yeah, I get that a lot. And maybe I'm completely out to lunch here.

But I think it makes sense. It's an argument that evangelical Christians make routinely and accept. In this blog entry I explained how Mike Licona, William Lane Craig, and JP Moreland accept this claim. Check that out and see what you think. It's not that it follows with logical necessity. It's just that it's very plausible. If a person performs various miracles, predicts his own death and resurrection, and then that death and resurrection occur precisely in the way that person predicted it would, to me that gives this person credibility and I would probably believe the things they say. This person COULD still make mistakes under these conditions, but I just think this person has a lot of credibility.

From that the logic follows accordingly. If A then B implies ~B therefore ~A.

Paul said...

Jon -

in the link you provided you quote the following -

“We do not believe in Christ because we believe in the Bible; we believe in the Bible because we believe in Christ.”

Skipping some details - this seems circular to me.

Am I missing something?

Jon said...

I don't see how. If they said:

1-We believe in the Bible because we believe in Christ and

2-We believe in Christ because we believe in the bible.

then that would be circular. But they don't believe 2. They believe 1.

Paul said...

How do they know of Jesus if it didn't come from the bible? I don't know where there knowledge of Jesus come from if not from the bible. As an FYI, i don't consider internal witness of holy spirit as at all valid.

Also WLC uses the bible to prove that Jesus is god does he not.

Paul said...

Jon - on the following

"At least his present happiness. Rejecting it disrupts his entire familial situation. Why bother?"

I am at times sympathetic to this view; but mostly not. It is my experience that the more fundamentalist one is, the more that person tries to impose their solely religious based morality - via the law - on others. Maybe I overstate. I'd like to hear your views on this.

Chad said...

Pick pick pick and you will find whatever flaws and faults in any argument. What I find most disturbing about your position is that you gain nothing if your right, but lose everything if your wrong.

Paul said...

The non-sense of pascal's wager.

What if we are both wrong and the Muslim is right? Should we be both a Christian and Muslim just to be extra safe?

... utter rubbish.

Jon said...

Paul, what the apologist does is he takes the Bible as just a historical document and he attempts to establish certain facts about Jesus just like you would establish facts about any historical character. WL Craig thinks he can conclude on that basis that Jesus was raised. So you can theoretically get there without an inerrant text.

I kind of agree that if someone wants to proselytize then they should be comfortable with the push back. It happens that this friend of mine doesn't do that. He's just kind of living his happy Christian life. Going to church, going to bible studies, hanging out with church friends. It's a good life. Questioning that jeopardizes all that, so in his case I can see why he wouldn't want to and I can hardly blame him. I mean, I value the pursuit of truth. I think in the end falsehood is harmful. I think he would be better off if he'd question. But my attitude these days is more like I just have to let them decide that for themselves. And I think he's doing it, though maybe a bit subconsciously. Do I know better than him what will make for a happy life for him?

Jon said...

The assumption you are making, Chad, which I don't grant, is that if there is a God he's somehow offended if I don't believe in him and will punish me severely for it. I'm just not convinced of that. In fact I think if there is a God he'd be more inclined to favor those that willingly accepted what they regarded as uncomfortable truths. It's not like I wanted to give up Christianity. I loved Christianity. In fact I wore it a bit on my sleeve in high school as you may or may not have known. You didn't hear me swearing, you didn't see me drinking. Or trying to get girls in the sack. Has absolutely nothing to do with my inability to charm the ladies. It was my convictions damn it. Makes me feel better about it anyway.

Maybe God would sooner reward someone like me that folllowed the evidence where it leads as opposed to my friend who I believe intentionally stopped following the evidence for fear of where it may take him. If you likewise have doubts, maybe you are putting yourself at risk.

Or take a look at I Sam 15 and ask yourself if this accurately reflects God's character as you understand it. Maybe God will be pissed at the people that attributed these kinds of atrocities to him and he's sooner reward the people that stood up and said "NO, that's not God. God, if he exists, would not be evil. There may be a God, but that doesn't mean this guy writing in God's name is right."

Really I feel pretty comfortable with the idea that I could be wrong about God existing. If he's there I imagine he's not a petty, whiny baby that needs to have his ego stroked by me praying to him and telling him how great he is, and how thankful I am to him for giving me this nice life. What a pathetic God that would be. To treat him like he's a spoiled child is what would probably really offend him. If he did exist.

Paul said...

Paul, what the apologist does is he takes the Bible as just a historical document and he attempts to establish certain facts about Jesus just like you would establish facts about any historical character. WL Craig thinks he can conclude on that basis that Jesus was raised. So you can theoretically get there without an inerrant text.

I agree that is what he tries to do. My contention is that I understood you to be saying (in the blog post you link to in your response to MKR) that he (WLC and others?) believes that the bible is true because they believes in Christ.

So to me it equates to this.

Person A believes in Christ therefore that same person believes the bible is true.

If belief in Jesus came first - as it must be by definition - how does this person know that the bible is the source of Christs' true history? Did Christ tell him/her in some way that I am not able to experience/verify? How did they verify it?

Did their particular experience of the holy spirit tell them so. What if my experience of the holy spirit tells me that the GSM is the one true.

No - it seems to me that for legitimacy one must first have to establish that the bible is historically accurate. Then one might (and I am being generous in use of might) conclude that if Jesus is raised that he is lord.

Though on a side note - I am still baffled that if for sake of discussion I make concessions - why did God had to be literally born as a human being and then have to die for "our" sins? Why couldn't God just declare it so from whatever non/super-natural place God exists.