The Desperate Prayer of a Doubting Missionary

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 21, 2009 in General Atheism

Ken Daniels was an evangelical Christian and Bible translator in Ethiopia. But his reading of the Bible led him to serious doubts. In 2000, he recorded the following heartfelt prayer:

Father God, God of all creation, the one who made me, the one who loves me more than anyone else, the one who desires my well-being, I come to you today with a very heavy heart. Or more precisely, a knot in my stomach. Once again, it appears to me that all I have been taught about the inspiration of the Bible is false. Deep down inside me, I have a very, very strong suspicion that the Bible is human and not divine through and through. You know the passages I struggle with. I can’t seem to reconcile my conception of your nature with the way your character is portrayed in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament. Where do I get this sense of moral injustice when I read about how a master is not to be punished for beating his slave as long as the slave doesn’t die, because the slave is his property [Exodus 21:20]? There seems to be within me a moral law that stands in judgment of the Bible. Is this internal moral law a product of my culture that is to be submitted to the higher moral law of the Bible, or vice versa?

Why does the Old Testament incessantly violate my idea of right and wrong? Why does it regard women in such a poor light? Why are the people of Yahweh supposed to wipe out men, women and children but are allowed to take the virgins for themselves [Deuteronomy 21:10-14; Numbers 31:17-18]? Why are the sacrifices offered in the tabernacle called food for Yahweh [Leviticus 21:21-23]? Why does Yahweh need sacrifices anyway? Can’t he simply forgive those who ask for his forgiveness, just as we humans forgive each other? Why do some people get zapped instantly for touching the ark inadvertently [2 Samuel 6:1-8] while Aaron, Moses’ brother, gets off scot-free after making a golden calf for the people to worship [Exodus 32], and then he becomes the leader of the priesthood and the recipient of the best of all the offerings of the people? Why do women suspected of adultery have to go through some bizarre ordeal of drinking bitter water and seeing their womb swell and thigh waste away, while no provision is made for women to test their husbands for the same offense [Numbers 5:11-31]?

God, the weight of all these troublesome passages, and many more, add up in my mind to foolishness. Or at least an attribution of ancient cultural ideas on the God of all creation. The list goes on: the Bible’s endorsement of polygamy [2 Samuel 12:8], the magic of the striped sticks causing sheep’s offspring to be striped [Genesis 30:31-43], the assertion that camels don’t have split hooves [Leviticus 11:1-4], the mixed use of round numbers and exact numbers in Numbers [3:39-51] to justify paying redemption money to Aaron’s family, Yahweh’s command to hamstring the horses [Joshua 11:6], the barbaric brutality of the Israelites in their holy wars, the contradictory teachings on divorce [Deuteronomy 22:19, 29; Ezra 10:2-3; Malachi 2:16; Mark 10:11-12], the many little historical contradictions, the attempt to explain language diversification through a “how-the-leopard-got-its-spots” Tower of Babel story [Genesis 11:1-9], the conception of a young earth which is clearly unattested to by the facts [Genesis 1-11], the inability of Christians to agree on so many doctrines while reading the same Bible that seems to say one thing in one place and another in another place, the long process of canonizing the Bible, the vengeful attitudes ascribed to Yahweh when his wayward people are attacked by their enemies, the sacrifices in Ezekiel’s temple that has yet to be built [Ezekiel 40], the vengeance Samson took on his betrayers under the influence of the Spirit of Yahweh [Judges 14:19], the exclusively physical punishments and rewards promised for the Israelites [Deuteronomy 28] with no mention of heaven until late in the writing of the Old Testament, and on and on and on.

How much of this am I expected to absorb and put into the filing cabinet labeled “troublesome, contradictory or unjust but accept it by faith anyway”? How much tension can a soul take? Why does it seem like I’m just about the only one in my circle of friends that struggles with these issues as deeply as I do? Am I warped, proud, or rebellious? Are you blinding my eyes because I haven’t spent enough time with you in prayer lately? Or are the things I’m beginning to suspect—that the Bible is not divinely inspired—true after all? This is not just an academic exercise. The direction of the rest of my life, if not eternity, depends on it. I know that even if the Bible is true, you don’t mind my bringing these questions before you, since the Psalms record similarly piercing doubts that David experienced.

Father God, take me in your arms just as I would take [our children] in my arms in a time of trouble, and comfort me with words of assurance and love and healing. I know you are my creator. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you made me and love me. I ask you to have compassion on me and lead me to the truth. I ask you to search my heart and reveal to me anything that displeases you and that stands in the way of my finding the truth about the Bible. Open up my eyes so I can see my sin as you see it, and give me the courage and strength to put it away. I confess that I have been detached from you and my family and friends. I have been living in a world of my own mind, excluding those who are dearest to me. I have been objecting to the inequality of men and women expressed in the Bible, yet I’ve effectively been reinforcing it in my own marriage by leaving Charlene to do all the household work. Forgive me, I pray, and help me to get back on the right footing.

Father, if I could only sit before you and talk with you as a man talks with another man, if only I could ask you what you had in mind when you made humanity and allowed so many different religions to take root and lead to so many confusing, contradictory and sometimes harmful paths. Why are people so gullible to believe so many contradictory things? Muslims believe what they do because they’ve been exposed to Islamic teachings and social influences, and it seems no different from why Christians are Christians. If no one major religion is the truth, then what is? Do I have to make up a minor religion to get at the truth? Heaven forbid! In my opinion there are already too many religions. Oh, Father, I don’t want to be impertinent. I don’t want to reject Jesus as the Son of God if he really is the Son of God or equivalent to God. But if he isn’t the Son of God, then I don’t want to spend my life in Africa proclaiming he is. What do I do, Lord, what do I do? Comfort my soul, Father. Thank you. Thank you for coming over me with your presence and that indescribable peace that assures me of your care for me. You have answered my prayer to take me in your arms and comfort me. I love you, I love you, I love you.

Thank you for my loving wife with whom I can discuss freely so many things. Thank you, thank you, thank you that I didn’t marry [my former girlfriend]. There’s no way I could have discussed any of this with her without being stonewalled. I believe you truly did bring us together, that you meant for me to have her and vice versa. Thank you for our three precious little children. How they bring joy to my life! You are truly an incredible genius to have conceived of the idea of babies and little children. Thank you for keeping them alive and in relatively good health to this point. Even if you decide someday to take them away, I pray that I would be able to join with Job in saying, “The Lord gives and takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” [...]

I love you Father, even though I’m confused. If my unbelief is unsubstantiated, help me in my unbelief, and may I be convinced that the Bible is indeed your word. If my unbelief is merited, I pray you’ll help me know how to proceed from here. In either case, I pray you’ll take away the blinders from my eyes that stem from my self, my sin, my culture, my religion or Satan, whatever the case may be. It seems that there are very few who manage to rise above the beliefs of their own culture. It’s usually the intellectuals. I have a hard time believing that you would set things up in such a way that only intellectuals find the truth. But I see how grotesque the fruits of anti-intellectualism have been in so many societies, and I don’t want to have part in that either. How do I find truth, Father? I pray as I come to you in prayer during this special time of seeking that you will reveal yourself to me in such a way that I can be assured of the truth. I certainly can’t find it out on my own or exclusively through intellectual evaluation. I want to seek truth in the way that you want me to go about it, whether it means accepting the Bible by faith, reading philosophy, praying until you reveal yourself to me, going to seminary, meditating, reflecting, talking with others, or any combination of the above. My problem is that I really don’t know how to go about it. I need your hand to guide me.

This prayer is quoted from Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary by Ken Daniels. It reflects quite accurately my own experience of starting to doubt God but wanting desperately to believe. So, too, does the opening sentence of his book:

What would you do if you had a sneaking suspicion, and then a growing fear, that your most cherished beliefs about God and the universe were built on sinking sand?

We former Christians experienced and followed God every bit as genuinely as those who still profess. It’s just that we were exposed to too much truth to remain believers. Christianity is false, and God does not exist.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Watkins December 21, 2009 at 8:08 am

Luke,

you’re from MN, home of people who elected Gov. Jesse Ventura, and Senator Stuart Smalley.

are we supposed to seriously consider anything coming out of that state?

  (Quote)

Jake de Backer December 21, 2009 at 8:45 am

And I was just telling someone how easy it is to issue an ad hominem and have people be taken in by it, not that you’ll be amongst their company here. You’ve also managed to couple that with a genetic fallacy to form one megastupid nonsensical bit of pseudo-rhetoric the answer to which is: Yes, he will be taken seriously irrespective of his origins if his claims are substantive and well-evidenced.

  (Quote)

Justfinethanks December 21, 2009 at 8:57 am

That’s all well and good, Jake, but nowhere in your post do you even attempt to address the fact that Luke is from Minnesota.

MINNESOTA

I can’t even listen to a Bob Dylan album, knowing he was born there.

  (Quote)

Ben December 21, 2009 at 9:46 am

This is exactly how I feel right now.

  (Quote)

ThePowerofMeow December 21, 2009 at 10:35 am

Jake,

My cat just told me that you are wrong. I realize the validity of what she has to say is not well-evidenced, and what she says is usually not that substantive (meow), but that’s OK. She is still right and you are wrong.

  (Quote)

lukeprog December 21, 2009 at 11:53 am

Chris,

Ah, but we also elected Al Franken, so there!

  (Quote)

Jake de Backer December 21, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Powerofmeow,

I was unaware while composing my post that I was committing the argumentum contraire catum. Perhaps it’s time I brushed up on my kitty philosophy. Any good authors in that field? Garfield or Hobbes, maybe.

Justfine,

How’s this:

1)People of Minnesota elected a professional wrestler to the states highest public office.
2)Therefore, people of Minnesota are idiots.
3) Luke isn’t always right, but isn’t an idiot.
(If I may borrow from WLC)
“It follows logically and inescapably” that
4)Luke isn’t from Minnesota.

That ought to clear things up a bit.

J.

  (Quote)

ildi December 21, 2009 at 1:00 pm

Perhaps it’s time I brushed up on my kitty philosophy. Any good authors in that field?

…just don’t ask Schrödinger’s cat…

  (Quote)

Larry December 21, 2009 at 2:38 pm

I don’t know how to make an umlaut (as in the name of the cat’s owner), so I guess this conversation has already exceeded my depth.

Still, I want to say that I am now on my third reading of Ken Daniel’s book. It is fantastic. I bought one for myself and several to give away. I’ve also read Dan Barker’s and John Loftus’ deconversion autobiographies, but Ken Daniels’ is the only one I would give without hesitation to a non-Christian friend. I’m glad to see this book being discussed!

  (Quote)

Omgredxface December 21, 2009 at 2:52 pm

“If you have reservations about your faith but lack confidence to act on your doubts, I would encourage you to start by placing your toe in what from the outside looks like an icy pool of disbelief. Ask yourself, “What if the Christian gospel is untrue? What would the world be like?” Start a checklist like the following and surprise yourself with how many items you can check off.”

Dude! Good stuff, I’m gonna start throwin this quote at my “questioning” friends.

  (Quote)

Jeff H December 21, 2009 at 4:41 pm

I find it interesting to see how much he is trying to reinforce his other beliefs (in God, a divine plan, etc.) in the midst of doubting this other stuff. I found the same thing myself when going through the process of doubt. I tried to let go of one or two things, like creationism, for example, while hanging onto the rest. It didn’t ultimately work, but I think it helped me through the process. I could deal with one thing at a time instead of being plunged into it altogether.

Anyway, looks like a good read! Another book to add to my wishlist…

  (Quote)

Mark December 21, 2009 at 4:51 pm

I think the term Christian should be reserved for those who actually know the very basics of the faith. People like Ken should be called Christian “candidates” until they can prove they know what they even believe in. Asking this question:

“Why does Yahweh need sacrifices anyway? Can’t he simply forgive those who ask for his forgiveness, just as we humans forgive each other?”

is like a mechanic asking “why does spark and gasoline ignite and cause internal combustion in engine? Seriously, Ken’s questions are that naive, and you can ask any priest, pastor, or nun if you don’t believe me.

I am not surprised Ken (and Luke) fell away from Christianity at all. I’m only shocked it took them so long to start asking questions.

  (Quote)

Justfinethanks December 21, 2009 at 5:49 pm

Thanks to Mark, I think I’m starting to understand the mind of a Christian who is forced to deal with earnest and thoughtful apostasy. In their minds, “Unwilling to accept nonsensical and ad hoc explanations for the multitude of absurdities and contradictions within Christianity” is equal to “Doesn’t understand Christianity.”

Seriously, of all the arguments lobbed against atheists, “You were never a true Christian” or “You never really understood Christianity,” is the most patronizing, the least meaningful, and it reveals that you have essentially given up the game.

  (Quote)

josef johann December 21, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Speaking for myself, I can probably say that an apologist would tell me I was never “really” a christian, with some justification. I prayed, I read the Bible, I believed and hoped I was going to heaven, but I hated going to church, I hated the discussion groups, it all just filled me with lethargy. So there was a gulf of ambivalence that grew wider and wider between me and Christianity, and I was quite capable of letting go without any real emotional pain.

  (Quote)

Lorkas December 21, 2009 at 7:42 pm

Larry: I don’t know how to make an umlaut (as in the name of the cat’s owner), so I guess this conversation has already exceeded my depth.

Easy way:

1) Highlight “Schrödinger”
2) Copy
3) Paste where the umlaut is desired
4) Finished!
You’re so welcome :D

  (Quote)

ThePowerofMeow December 21, 2009 at 8:52 pm

While the idea of sacrifice is often misunderstood from a modern point of view – sometimes it’s about making things sacred, like the meat we eat, rather than just a gift for divine favor or a substitutionary atonement……..oh wait. Stop. My cat said so.

She just told me that to question her authority is like asking why an electric toaster oven works.

And when others question my cat’s authority, it hurts my felines…….

I am scared……

  (Quote)

Tshepang Lekhonkhobe December 22, 2009 at 1:51 am

Ken’s story — the questions he asked when attempting to comprehend the brutality portrayed in the Bible — is scarily similar to mine, that is when I decided to read the entire thing, mainly out of curiosity (over 10 yrs ago). It was still a process because I still had scared “what if mighty G is really out there, watching and judging” questions.

  (Quote)

Beelzebub December 22, 2009 at 2:54 am

Christianity should have taken up Jefferson’s offer to rewrite the Bible. The OT should have been jettisoned. But it wasn’t, so sealing the fate of Christianity, in my opinion. To accept the OT as any kind of recounting of truth is to believe that the universe is controlled by a maniac, and that is just not going to endure.

It must be said, however, that the craziest of Christians actually adore the OT God, the blood, the brutality, the punishment. 9 times out of 10 they quote the OT, not the NT. You know the type. It makes sense to them; that’s how the world should be, according to them. In fact, they’re often quite baffled by the contents of the NT. Sure, when they quote it, they do so approvingly, but there’s often that circumspection, like a yokel quoting an intellectual he “thinks” is on his side, but isn’t quite sure.

  (Quote)

lukeprog December 22, 2009 at 3:21 am

That Jesus guy is such a freakin’ liberal!

  (Quote)

ildi December 22, 2009 at 5:22 am

Lorkas:
Easy way:1) Highlight “Schrödinger”
2) Copy
3) Paste where the umlaut is desired
4) Finished!
You’re so welcome   

I was going to tell Larry it was magic…

  (Quote)

mikespeir December 23, 2009 at 5:34 am

Christians need to read this book and not spout glib “rebuttals” until they do.

  (Quote)

ayer December 23, 2009 at 9:19 am

From this letter, this missionary’s doubts concerned Old Testament passages that he no longer took to be inerrant. While that might lead to a doubting of biblical inerrancy, if the resurrection of Jesus occurred (which can be established through secular historical methods), big deal–it would not affect Nicene Creed Christianity in the slightest. Biblical inerrancy is not held by all Christian denominations and is a third-tier doctrine at best.

He should have focused in on this genuine insight: “There seems to be within me a moral law that stands in judgment of the Bible.” A deep pondering of this moral law would serve him well, as it did Francis Collins and C.S. Lewis.

  (Quote)

ThePowerofMeow December 23, 2009 at 10:26 am

ayer,

It’s a good point to ponder “moral law” for sure. But there are many conclusions out there. We should be open-minded I think.

I don’t think the resurrection can be established with any degree of certainty through secular historical methods. Once again, I think being open-minded, while considering probabilities, is the best idea.

All this despite what my cat says…….

  (Quote)

Mandy December 24, 2009 at 10:39 pm

A lot of that is also what went on with me … correction, what’s going on with me. I’m still kind of ambivalent on that.

The trouble with dealing with inerrancy of any kind in the Bible is that once you start finding mistakes, you wonder which mistakes you’re missing. If you can’t believe this, why should you believe that? I was a liberal Christian for about three seconds, but without the foundation of divine inspiration, it was “as sinking sand.” I sometimes say that all Christians cherry-pick the Bible, but liberal Christians know that they are. And I don’t understand how each individual can determine completely separate ideas of what is true and what isn’t without any acknowledgment of the pride it takes to imagine that YOU are the one who knows which parts are true and which aren’t. Many Christians despise moral relativism, yet moral relativism is what we are left with.

It isn’t that we don’t understand Christianity or that we’ve never heard the apologetics. It’s that the apologetics are insufficient, unsatisfying, or nonanswers, and instead we feel like we know Christianity too well. Me? I’m almost afraid to go back and start trying to be a Christian again, not because I’m afraid I’ll become a Christian and realize that my atheism was just wrong and a phase. I’m worried that I’ll get farther away from Christianity. That’s been the trend. Every time I search for answers, I get farther away from God, not closer. I read the arguments, I consider the answers, and they are never satisfying. It is TOO IMPORTANT to be left to blind faith.

  (Quote)

lukeprog December 25, 2009 at 12:15 am

Mandy,

That’s fascinating and poignant.

  (Quote)

Steven Stark December 25, 2009 at 7:34 am

Mandy,

Thanks for your thoughts. I am sure they resonate with many people.

I think many liberal Christians see the Bible as being valuable because of what it is – not a divinely inspired message from a far-off, external deity to man, but rather as a work of man. It contains passages of beauty and ugliness, inspired moral truths and petty, polemical demonizing.

In fact, the Bible is amazing, containing 1,000 years of writing from a single culture being bounced around by power after power – all of which have since faded.

It only looks horrible when people try to selfishly take these writings, written by the people and for the people of THAT time, and rob it of its context, pretending it is something it could never be. Terms like inerrant, or divinely inspired, seek to rob the Bible of its strength – its humanity.

As for cherry-picking, if it’s a work of man, albeit an amazing one, then why not? We should read it all (if we’re interested), but we shouldn’t follow it all. Much of the Bible is beneficial for being exactly what we should NOT do, as much as what we should do.

So what is the standard by which we judge? Our thought, feelings, and the thoughts and feelings of others. Basically, the Bible is subject to the same process by which we judge everything. I think many atheists have to treat the Bible as %100 horrible, because they are afraid of the same slippery slope that biblical inerrantists are afraid of. But the truth is that these words were written by real people, in their time, trying to find some meaning in the events of history and the events of their lives. Just like we do.

  (Quote)

Mandy December 25, 2009 at 10:00 pm

I took enough courses in Religion to probably minor in it because it is a subject that interests me: all religions. I like the Bible, I do. I find it endlessly interesting. I’m a reader and a writer, and I appreciate religion for its stories, its rich history, its rich literature, its touch upon culture. I do not hate the Bible. I love many parts of it, like I love Paradise Lost. When I write, religion inevitably creeps into my fiction, and I am unapologetic for it. Religion is interesting, including Christianity.

I do not hate the Bible. As long as it is a book of stories and history and culture, not as something that I should believe in and obey without question because it is true. I can determine an ethical standard without depending on the Bible or Christianity – lit studies, anthropology, and sociology have helped me tremendously. As a piece of literature, the Bible is an awesome thing, even if just for its cultural impact. As a rulebook of inerrant divine inspiration… then paradoxes, contradictions, things that are morally repugnant, questions without answers make the Bible a minefield.

  (Quote)

Steven Stark December 26, 2009 at 6:33 am

well put!

  (Quote)

ayer December 26, 2009 at 9:48 am

Mandy: The trouble with dealing with inerrancy of any kind in the Bible is that once you start finding mistakes, you wonder which mistakes you’re missing. If you can’t believe this, why should you believe that? I was a liberal Christian for about three seconds, but without the foundation of divine inspiration, it was “as sinking sand.” I sometimes say that all Christians cherry-pick the Bible, but liberal Christians know that they are. And I don’t understand how each individual can determine completely separate ideas of what is true and what isn’t without any acknowledgment of the pride it takes to imagine that YOU are the one who knows which parts are true and which aren’t. Many Christians despise moral relativism, yet moral relativism is what we are left with.

I’m sorry, I don’t understand your logic here. If you determine that the Bible has errors, you must therefore throw out the entire Bible as worthless in terms of historical truth and conclude that God does not exist? Why not fall back to generic theism/deism first? And in regards to the Bible, the application of historiographical scholarship results in the evaluation of different parts of the Bible as more or less historical based on the standards of a secular academic discipline; it is not “cherry picking.” If the historical evidence points to the resurrection of Jesus as fact, so what if you find a factual error elsewhere in the Bible? “Mere Christianity” would still be true.

It seems that fundamentalists and atheists often suffer from the same “all or nothing” type of thinking.

  (Quote)

Mandy December 26, 2009 at 2:18 pm

I know I suffer from black-and-white thinking – it made me vulnerable to fundamentalist Christianity and, when fundamentalist Chrsitianity lost its fundamentals for me, made it very difficult to accept liberal Christianity. That’s why I so often have to check and recheck my thinking, approach it at all angles, before finally making a decision. It’s why, while I identify as an atheist, I’m not comfortable trusting my own thoughts on the matter (which, btw, is terrifying). If I sound certain when I write, it is only because I have been taught to sound certain – it’s what they teach you in school when you’re writing essays. I often sound much more certain than I am.

By determining the Bible has errors, it brings into question the veracity of the rest. Consider: if nothing in the Bible but the resurrection is true, on what basis do you accept the truth of the resurrection? People have lived and died for lies that they absolutely believed were truth, for things that they thought they saw before their very eyes – the ability for man to deceive himself is legend, and the scientific method was created to correct for man’s flawed perception. I freely admit that I suffer from flawed perception; many people do not admit or even consider this.

Basically, when it comes to generic theism or deism, the idea of a god that isn’t Christian or is vaguely Christian or vaguely nothing that we know or can know, there isn’t a pressure to believe. There is no threat of hell or promise of heaven. There is no demand for certain behaviors except for the same demanded from humanism. I don’t feel any urgency or need to believe in a god who may or may not care about my worship. I’ve conceived of several of these gods (and write about them on occasion), asking myself what these gods can look like when held up to how the world is. But with this kind of spirituality, I don’t feel a knife to my throat. I can examine it leisurely and without fear regardless my conclusions – whether I’m an atheist or a deist makes little difference.

The same is not true with the god of the Bible. Even if only the resurrection is true, what does that mean about the God who demanded the death and resurrection of Jesus necessary?

  (Quote)

ayer December 26, 2009 at 3:01 pm

Mandy: By determining the Bible has errors, it brings into question the veracity of the rest. Consider: if nothing in the Bible but the resurrection is true, on what basis do you accept the truth of the resurrection?

On the same basis by which, if I find errors in Tacitus, I do not throw out all the histories of Tacitus as worthless. That’s the problem with “all or nothing” thinking. It would make the discipline of history impossible.

Mandy: I don’t feel any urgency or need to believe in a god who may or may not care about my worship.

How about the simple urgency to pursue truth? Many scientific truths, for example, have no existential impact on our lives, but it is still better to be in truth than in ignorance.

Mandy: Even if only the resurrection is true, what does that mean about the God who demanded the death and resurrection of Jesus necessary?

That’s a good theological question, but it is entirely separate from whether the resurrection is true. If it is true we have to deal with the theological implications it has for our concept of God whether we like it or not.

  (Quote)

Mandy December 26, 2009 at 5:11 pm

If you had noticed, I did not say I had dismissed theism/deism entirely – instead, I didn’t feel urgency to determine their legitimacy, although I do pursue it in my own time, through fiction and my thoughts. I have not ceased my pursuit of truth. My conclusions thus far, however, have been exclusively atheistic in nature. (Sorry if I don’t devote enough time or urgency to these things as you believe I should. I’m still contending with the far more urgent concerns of determining whether I am incorrect in my atheism and my original conservative Christianity was correct and now God hates me and will send me to hell. I’ll focus more attention on less threatening spiritual questions once I’ve dealt with the paralyzing fear. Okay?)

Regarding the historical accuracy of the Bible: I am always conscious of history being innately subjective. That’s part of what’s cool about it, but it also makes absolutely true history a slippery thing. We must read the Bible in that way. The problems come when writers in the Bible itself claim absolute truth within the text – not just absolute truth but truth divinely inspired. The history presented in the Bible needs to be held to as much scrutiny as the history presented by any other historical text, especially when it is as important a text as the Bible.

As history, the Bible is not worthless – simply suspect, especially in light of contradictory evidence or absence of evidence. As culture and literature, the Bible is priceless. As divine truth, especially since it claims to be divine truth, the Bible is the aforementioned minefield.

Other people have addressed the historical evidence of the resurrection, and if you’ve been on this blog for as long as I suspect you have, ayer, you already know the arguments for and against. No need to beat a dead horse for no reason. Suffice it to say, we have responded to the evidence in different ways.

  (Quote)

Steven Stark December 26, 2009 at 5:53 pm

Mandy brings up a good point about how the urgency to take a stand on the historicity of the resurrection is theologically driven. An agnostic who is content to remain agnostic is very frustrating to many conservative believers. They believe that God punishes the historian who gets it wrong, so I suppose the stakes are higher than establishing the probability of whether or not Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

They also equate rejection of a belief in God with rejection of God.

A person is not personally spiting a unicorn by not believing that it exists in the external world. If this were true we would all be spiting an infinite amount of creatures that may or may not exist.

They also equate rejection of a historical conclusion with rejection of faith and open-mindedness. It just isn’t true.

  (Quote)

ayer December 26, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Mandy: As history, the Bible is not worthless – simply suspect, especially in light of contradictory evidence or absence of evidence.

Fine, if you accept that the Bible is no more or less suspect than any other historical text, and should not be held to a more stringent double standard, then we agree

Mandy: Suffice it to say, we have responded to the evidence in different ways.

Fine again; if you reject the resurrection after a thorough examination of the evidence, I have no quarrel with that. The point is that if the resurrection occurred, all the debates over inerrancy become relatively insignificant.

  (Quote)

ayer December 26, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Steven Stark: They believe that God punishes the historian who gets it wrong, so I suppose the stakes are higher than establishing the probability of whether or not Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

They also equate rejection of a belief in God with rejection of God.

Actually, I believe neither of those things. I basically agree with Dallas Willard when it comes to heaven: “God is going to let everyone in who can stand it.” The problem is going to be not a lack of certainty, but a lack of willingness to surrender autonomy and admit dependence on a transcendent reality greater than ourselves.

  (Quote)

Mandy December 26, 2009 at 6:46 pm

Actually, we might disagree on how much scrutiny to be given the Bible. Since it claims to be truth, it does need to be scrutinized even more closely because the stakes are higher. And if it is truth, then it should be able to hold up to scrutiny. I don’t consider this a double standard – you know the saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

  (Quote)

ayer December 26, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Mandy: Actually, we might disagree on how much scrutiny to be given the Bible. Since it claims to be truth, it does need to be scrutinized even more closely because the stakes are higher. And if it is truth, then it should be able to hold up to scrutiny. I don’t consider this a double standard – you know the saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  

Any document written as history claims to be the truth; the historian’s job is to sift the document to determine the reliability of its various claims. And yes, to hold the Bible to a more stringent standard because “the stakes are higher” is a double standard, as Bayes’ Theorem makes clear (see William Lane Craig’s debate with Bart Ehrman on the resurrection for an example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjOSNj97_gk)

  (Quote)

Steven Stark December 26, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Ayer: “The problem is going to be not a lack of certainty, but a lack of willingness to surrender autonomy and admit dependence on a transcendent reality greater than ourselves.”

I am sure that if atheists believed God existed, they would be very, very open to hearing what he had to say. And many atheists I know exhibit many qualities of faith – a firm belief in humankind’s limited perspective, a positive attitude of trust towards whatever it is that IS, etc. Does “faith” have to equal intellectual submission to a specific historical claim about Jesus? Any historical hypothesis that requires supernatural intervention seems pretty ad hoc to me, opening up a Pandora’s box of possibilities.

As for people not being able to “stand” heaven – In order to make a truly free choice, don’t people need a sound mind and all the available evidence? Why would a person make an eternal choice that goes completely against his/her own interest if these criteria are met? If a person insisted on damnation for all eternity rather than surrendering to God, we would call that person insane – more insane than a person walking out blindly in to traffic, and it would be our moral duty to stop them. Wouldn’t God do the same?

thanks,
Steven

  (Quote)

ayer December 27, 2009 at 10:36 am

Steven Stark: Why would a person make an eternal choice that goes completely against his/her own interest if these criteria are met? If a person insisted on damnation for all eternity rather than surrendering to God, we would call that person insane

You’re assuming that all people would see spending an eternity worshiping God as more in their interest than separation from that God, which is not the case (unless you have a view of hell as unending physical torment, which I do not). In fact, the best interpretation of hell is the “annihilationist” one, in which those not in heaven cease to exist (see http://www.gregboyd.org/essays/god-essays/judgement/the-case-for-annihilationism/)

  (Quote)

Steven Stark December 27, 2009 at 12:35 pm

So for many people, it is in their interest to be annihilated rather than to worship God for all eternity?

That is an interesting view!

  (Quote)

ayer December 27, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Steven Stark: So for many people, it is in their interest to be annihilated rather than to worship God for all eternity?That is an interesting view!  

Actually, I seem to recall that this question was asked of several atheists on this blog, and they said they would rather cease to exist (since the idea of worshiping God for eternity offends them–a la Christopher Hitchens view of heaven as a “cosmic North Korea”), and they would cease to exist if anyway if atheism is true

  (Quote)

lukeprog December 27, 2009 at 2:51 pm

I, for one, would rather be annihilated than worship God for an eternity – especially if he is all-powerful and responsible for the design of this world.

  (Quote)

Steven Stark December 27, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Agreement between theists and atheists! I love it. Perhaps the lion is laying down with the lamb.

  (Quote)

drj December 27, 2009 at 10:20 pm

lukeprog: I, for one, would rather be annihilated than worship God for an eternity – especially if he is all-powerful and responsible for the design of this world.  

I think we all agree (even Ayer) that it would be unquestioningly irrational to refuse heaven, if truly offered the chance to go, when the alternative is eternal torment.

But I have to take issue with your stance here Luke. It seems to me, that it would be fundamentally irrational to turn down heaven, if truly offered the choice, no matter what the alternative is. Even in the case of annihilation, I would argue that turning down heaven is irrational.

Words often describe it in horrifically dull terms (choirs of saints singing praises to God for all of eternity, etc), as if its some excruciating eternal nightmare filled with nothing but a kind of psychotic worship-slavery. But forget for a second the cartoonish portrayals of heaven that we often encounter and reflect on what it really is supposed to be as a concept. Heaven is the best achievable existence. Its hard to see how or why any other alternative could or would be chosen if one is truly free to make a rational choice, and it is the best achievable existence.

If any of us atheists truly found ourselves staring Yahweh in the face, would it really be so unthinkable to entertain the idea that our moral evaluations of our deeds and the deeds of this God might have been off the mark? Would it really be the rational thing to do, to stick to your guns in the face of annihilation, even though you have already been proven wrong on something so enormously fundamental (ie, the existence of Yahweh)? If thats a rationally compelling reason to rethink things, I don’t know what is.

You, the enchanted naturalist, stare at the natural universe with awe and amazement. Heaven is supposed to put all this to shame. Why would you refuse a chance at that existence, where things are guaranteed to surpass all the amazing things you have experienced in your current life?

This is all hypothetical of course, and it does often make a good rhetorical point to take the defiant stand in front of some audiences, as Hitchens does. It makes for a powerful statement. But seriously, if by some fluke we are wrong, why would it be the rational or commendable thing to do to persist in our wrongess?

And as an aside, if its true that choosing heaven is the really the only rational option, it should be apparent that it will pose some serious problems for Christians (of the non-universalist variety). The “Problem of Hell” would be replaced with “The Problem of Refusing Heaven” and all the traditional theodicies for the former could not be applicable. Universalist Christians will be untouched, but hey.. they have the words of Jesus to contend with.

  (Quote)

Steven Stark December 28, 2009 at 6:29 am

drj,

I actually completely agree with you, I just decided to let it go.

I think Universalism is a beautiful thing to believe, even if it does require some serious exegesis. Universalists tend to see Jesus words concerning Gehenna as referring to a purifying fire. There are also Scriptures in Jeremiah which speak of a new Jerusalem whose walls will encompass the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). That’s just a small example of the way Universalists look at Scripture.

But yes, if confronted with all available evidence and a sane mind – no one would turn down the heaven you describe.

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment