Letter to Tim Challies 1

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 18, 2009 in Christian Theology,General Atheism,Letters

Following my letter exchanges with Vox Day, Mark van Steenwyk, and Tom Gilson, here is my first letter to Christian writer Tim Challies, author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. Our discussion will be limited to three letters each.

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Tim,

I’m happy you accepted my invitation for a brief letter exchange. You’re a Christian and I’m an atheist, so this is an opportunity for each of us to present our worldview to the other camp and ask some illuminating questions of each other.

I think our conversation will be fruitful because we have so much in common. We both have a passion for making the world a better place, a passion for truth, and a passion for communicating with others. This will be much better than a dialogue between Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins! (In fact, I’m currently writing a book in which I carefully refute the central arguments offered by each of the New Atheists.)

I don’t want a debate or a shouting match. I’d like just like to share our views with each other and our audiences and come to some mutual understanding. In fact, one question I’d like to ask you concerns how we can work together toward mutual goals. John Hummel of the 52 Weeks, 52 Religions podcast put the question this way:

I’ve gone to each church and asked: “What are the important things people should be doing?” If I go to an Islamic service, they say “Help the poor, the sick, and the needy.” If I go to the Catholics, I get the same answer. If I go to the humanists, the same answer. I don’t think that anyone so far has told me much otherwise. But when I look at our society at large, we do a really bad job at all of those.

If everyone really believed we should be helping the homeless, we wouldn’t have any. If we really believed we should be helping the sick, I wouldn’t encounter people who have cancer and can’t pay for it.

We spend our time arguing about whether we should put the Ten Commandments in a courthouse or not, or whether gay people should get married or not. We spend so much time arguing about ourdifferences, instead of doing the things we all agree we should be doing. Why is that? And what can we do about it?

I’d also like to hear your own faith journey in a nutshell. What do you believe today, why do you believe it, and how did you get here?

Meanwhile, let me share my own story…

I grew up a non-denominational “born again” Christian in Minnesota. My father is a pastor. My mother organizes overseas missions and supports the persecuted Church around the world.

I went to church, Bible study, and other spiritual events every week. I prayed often and earnestly. For 12 years I attended a Christian school that taught Bible classes and creation science. I played in worship bands. As a teenager I made trips to China and England to tell the atheists over there about Jesus.

I felt the presence of God. Sometimes I would tingle and sweat with the Holy Spirit. Other times I felt led by Him to give money to a certain cause, or to pay someone a specific compliment, or to walk to the cross at the front of my church and bow before it during a worship service.

By the time I went to university I had left behind what I felt were “petty” doctrinal disputes. I just wanted to be like Jesus, and that was it.

So, I had to figure out who Jesus really was.

I studied the New Testament texts and the Historical Jesus. I discovered that much of what the church had taught me was untrue or gravely misleading. Many of the New Testament letters are known to be forgeries even by the most conservative scholars. The books of the Bible are written by very different authors with very different theologies. The gospels contradict each other all over the place. And if there’s any consensus at all about who the Historical Jesus was, it’s that he was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet; a failed one at that, since the end of the world did not come in his generation. And the religion of Jesus was quite different than the later religion about Jesus, apparently launched by Paul. Moreover, I started to wonder: How could I accept the miracle stories about Jesus when I outright rejected other ancient miracle claims as superstitious nonsense?

These discoveries scared me. I just wanted to erase everything I had learned and go back to being a simple Christian, confident in what I “knew” about Jesus. But I had to know the truth. So I studied more. I wanted to keep my faith, so for every critical article I read 5 articles on that subject by Christian apologists. (Not exactly fair, I know!) But it didn’t work.

I felt like my best friend – my source of purpose and happiness and comfort – was dying. And worse, I was killing him. If only I could have faith! If only I could unlearn all these things and just believe. I cried out with the words from Mark 9:24, “Lord, help my unbelief!”

I wrote to the host of an atheist radio show I had heard, in sad and angry defiance:

I was coming from a lifetime high of surrendering… my life to Jesus, releasing myself from all cares and worries, and filling myself and others with love. Then I began an investigation of the historical Jesus… and since then I’ve been absolutely miserable. I do not think I am strong enough to be an atheist. Or brave enough. I have a broken leg, and my life is much better with a crutch… I’m going to seek genuine experience with God, to commune with God, and to reinforce my faith. I am going to avoid solid atheist arguments, because they are too compelling and cause for despair. I do not WANT to live in an empty, cold, ultimately purposeless universe in which I am worthless and inherently alone.

I hope that I find a real, true God in my journey of blind faith. I do not need to convince you of that God, since you seem satisfied as an atheist. But I need to convince myself of that God.

But I couldn’t do it. I lost my faith completely. I just couldn’t find any good reasons to believe in God, not even from the most brilliant Christian philosophers. That was the most miserable time of my life.

It took me several months to learn what hundreds of millions of atheists around the world already knew – that there is plenty of hope and happiness and purpose and joy and morality without God. So now I’m living life as an enchanted naturalist seeking truth and love and beauty and morality.

I feel like I didn’t really start living until my deconversion. I was living in a bubble before then. But really, I’m glad I grew up a believer. At least now I understand where some believers are coming from. I know what it’s like to “experience” God. I know what it’s like to fall away from him and then fall back in love with him. I know what it’s like to be confused by the Trinity or why a loving Jesus would torture millions of good people but dismiss these doubts as the “mystery of God.” I know what it’s like to believe, I know what it’s like to doubt, and I know what’s it like to change my mind about some huge things. I know what it’s like to choose what I think is the truth even though every emotion and relationship is pulling me the other way.

That’s my story, Tim, and I look forward to hearing yours. Also, I hope you’ll share what you think Christians and atheists can do to work together toward our common goals for a better world.

Feel free to ask me any questions you like.

One more question I have for you is this: What things cause you the most doubt about your Christianity? Pointless suffering? Religious confusion? Doctrines about hell? Contradictions or absurdities in the Bible? Malicious design in nature? Contradictory religious experiences around the world? Anything?

Also: What do you think are some common atheist misunderstandings about Christianity that you’d like to clear up?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Cheers!

Luke

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{ 58 comments… read them below or add one }

Leon December 18, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Look forward to the rest of the exchange!

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Mark December 18, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Hi Luke

If you’re going to play debate ping pong, you may want to serve up something more compelling than your personal story. It doesn’t paint you in the most sophisticated light. In fact it demonstrates very little understanding of the Christian faith at all.

I know what it’s like to “experience” God.

Sorry, but no you don’t. You don’t describe the God of the Bible, nor do you ever even hint at the qualities we associate with worship such as contrition, humility, reverence, etc. When you speak of God you talk about him like he was a high school teacher you fell for. As far as I can tell from everything I have read here so far about you (which has been a LOT), your idea of God is too simplistic and superficial. When you describe your upbringing you never refer to God with any sense of awe, fear, or reverence at all.

I know what it’s like to fall away from him and then fall back in love with him.

“Falling in love with God.” Every time you say this it weirds me out for some reason. I have never thought of my relationship with God as one in which I am called to fall “in love” with him. I fell in love with my wife, but not with God. My love for the Lord God Almighty is a reverent love. It is a love built on respect, reverence, wonder, joy, etc. The commandment wasn’t that we “fall in love” with God. It was that we LOVE him.

I know what it’s like to be confused by the Trinity or why a loving Jesus would torture millions of good people but dismiss these doubts as the “mystery of God.”

Right. Because God couldn’t have a plan so far from your understanding that your brain could not even fathom it. If His plan doesn’t make sense to you, if you can’t write it out in a tidy little list on your web site, then He must not exist.

How dare that cocksure God have more intelligence than you. How dare he gets the kazillion-quad-bazillion GhZ processor, and only gives you the centrino. How dare he not reveal every finite detail of his master plan to you so you can have concrete evidence to be ‘convinced’ of his existence. How dare he not come to you as he came to Thomas.

How dare that old Jewish Yahweh tyrant and his despot son “torture” so many millions! Forget that it’s men who kill each other, and deprive those in impoverished nations of food and water (as you yourself admitted in your conflicted letter above). Forget that men and women and babies are starving to death in Kenya while movie stars live in $30 million dollar mansions, eat lobster with gold plated forks, and drive million dollar Italian sports cars to their tanning sessions. Forget all that. Blame it on GOD. He’s gotta be guilty of SOMETHING, right?

I know what it’s like to believe

I’m sorry, but no you don’t. It seems to me that you never feared God. In fact I never have seen the word “fear” in any of your testimonials when speaking of God. Without the fear of God, I haven’t a clue as to how someone could believe in him. He is God. He created the COSMOS. He is not your buddy. When Jesus said “call me a friend” he didn’t mean he was going to be Jiminey Crickett, nor did he say “Fall in love with me.” In your love affair with Christ you either forgot or never learned he is still GOD, the Creator of the universe whose power of the universe should instill profound respect as a son would revere his father if he became president of the United States–to the gazillionth power.

I know what it’s like to choose what I think is the truth even though every emotion and relationship is pulling me the other way.

Trust me Luke, if you truly fear the Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, you can’t just walk away and go start an atheist blog. A man who fears God may curse him, may even ignore him from time to time, may even detest him from time to time, but he will NEVER turn his back on him and walk away. Once you know the truth, there is no changing teams.

Your religion appears to have taught you everything about God.. but to fear him.. that is, to be in awe of him.. to trust in his infinite wisdom and lean NOT to your own understanding.

Just my .02

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foolfodder December 19, 2009 at 12:04 am

Mark wrote:

Without the fear of God, I haven’t a clue as to how someone could believe in him.

Did you fear God before you believed in him?

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Robert Gressis December 19, 2009 at 12:21 am

It seems possible that you could fear God without believing in God, just like you could fear Mr. Hyde without believing in Dr. Jeckyl.

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foolfodder December 19, 2009 at 12:47 am

Robert Gressis: It seems possible that you could fear God without believing in God, just like you could fear Mr. Hyde without believing in Dr. Jeckyl.

I don’t understand how that helps. The fear is still of something that you believe exists (Mr. Hyde). Could you fear Mr. Hyde without believing in Mr. Hyde?

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Beelzebub December 19, 2009 at 1:35 am

Mark: I’m sorry, but no you don’t. It seems to me that you never feared God. In fact I never have seen the word “fear” in any of your testimonials when speaking of God.

Wait a minute, is this deja vu? Last time wasn’t it “LOVE” (all caps) that you couldn’t find in the post — while actually the word was right there staring you in the face? Admit it, no matter what reason Luke gives, you’re not going to accept it; there’s always going to be some other essential that he’s leaving out. Your reasoning is: God is true, Luke’s reason for disbelief is x, x must be deficient because if it was sufficient Luke would believe. You are a true believer. If Luke now assures you that he was adequately fearful, you’ll just find something else.

And btw, why not blame God? If he’s so awesome, why the need to hunt and peck?

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lukeprog December 19, 2009 at 1:40 am

I think Robert is making a point made in Naming and Necessity.

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Robert Gressis December 19, 2009 at 2:14 am

I honestly don’t remember if the point was made in Naming and Necessity–it may have been made in The Nature of Necessity. I’m just distinguishing between de dicto and de re claims. Let me make my point with an example.

EXAMPLE: assume that middle John Hick is right, and that God exists, and that every believer in one of the major religions experiences God when he sincerely engages in the religious practice as prescribed by his religion. So, a Christian who sincerely prays thinks he experiences God speaking to him, and a Buddhist who meditates thinks he experiences no-self when meditating. As it turns out, however, both the Christian and the Buddhist experience God; it’s just that the Christian’s description of the event is more accurate. To put it more formally: the Christian experiences God speaking to him de dicto, and God speaking to him de re; the Buddhist experiences no self de dicto and God speaking to him de re.

Obviously, if this is possible, it could be the case that you fear God de re but, since you don’t believe in God, you don’t fear God de dicto…maybe what you think you fear is the smallness of yourself in relation to the universe, but in actual fact that experience is really your fear of God.

(As for Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, you like Dr. Jeckyl de dicto and fear Mr. Hyde de dicto. Unbeknownst to you, Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde are the same person, so not only do you like Dr. Jeckyl de re, you also fear Dr. Jeckyl de re.)

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foolfodder December 19, 2009 at 2:29 am

Ok, if someone believes in and fears a creature called the ‘Juju beast’ and then realises that a better name for the Juju beast is ‘God’ and then they still believe in and fear the thing that they’re now calling God. Then they believed in and feared the thing they call God before they called it God.

I don’t see how that helps, they still had to believe in the thing (whatever name they’re giving it) before they could fear it, I would have thought. Even if you have a kind of general fear which then gets transferred to a particular thing, you have to believe in the thing that the fear gets transferred to before you fear that thing.

I’ve not read Naming and Necessity, so apologies if I’ve not understood the point.

Edit: that was a reply to Luke’s comment. I’ll read (and try to understand) Robert’s now)

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foolfodder December 19, 2009 at 3:07 am

Ah, ok, I think I get it now.

Though I’m still wondering whether Mark feared in God before he believed in him.

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Edson December 19, 2009 at 3:08 am

I can understand what Luke thinks when he writes these sort of posts (the list of top apolegetic books by Christians, the usual arguments used by Christians for their faith and against atheism, his deconversion stories, etc.)

He just want to instill the mind of the people he wants to reach that he understands everything about their mindset because he has been there, he has read more, he still reads more, and for that matter, he knows more about their Faith only to discover through this tedious and sincere truth seeking that it was all hogwash.

And his overall objective is to electromagnetically but passively captivate the mind of Christians to follow his trend. Personally, I think this is a clever tactic, unlike the anti-social, direct attack weaponry on Christianity used by the Dawknites.

But Luke should simply understand that the way he thinks about Christians and Christianity, is the way convinced Christians thinks about atheists and atheism.

He just thinks arguments for believing in Christianity are unpersuasive, as much as I think argument for believing in atheism are unpersuasive. It is a matter of Faith perseverance. His journey to atheism can simply be summarized that Luke wasn’t able to withstand the storms against the Faith while those who are still happy Christians implies that they are able to withstand the storms. So he was weak and they are strong.

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Dissenter December 19, 2009 at 3:25 am

I’m also an atheist who grew up as a Christian. I attended church with my parents almost every Sunday, said a prayer every night, and accepted all the standard Christian beliefs. So I’m glad to read posts like yours. It encourages me that more and more people are throwing off the bonds of false Christian belief.

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Alex December 19, 2009 at 4:39 am

Mark,

Having read your posts over the last few weeks I have been consistently saddened by they tend to be personal attacks based on sweeping assumptions. For example, how can you say with breezy confidence that Luke never had “any sense of awe, fear, or reverence at all”. His posts about his former Christianity I see that he did indeed feel these thing. As for the motif of “falling in love with God” being an aberration of the Christian tradition, you surely know that this kind of language is common in a lot of Christian mysticism, from St Theresa to Julian of Norwich. Indeed, the whole motif of Jesus as lover was the basis for a huge quantity of medieval love poetry.

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Robert Gressis December 19, 2009 at 11:41 am

foolfodder: Ah, ok, I think I get it now.Though I’m still wondering whether Mark feared in God before he believed in him.  

Well, I could be over-analyzing this. By “believed in” God, Mark might not have meant the standard sense of that term when applied to God–i.e., “believed that God exists”. He may have meant “believed in” in the sense that some people don’t believe in each other. So, he may have believed that God existed, then feared God, then believed in God in the sense of trusted in God, etc.

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Robert Gressis December 19, 2009 at 11:47 am

Alex: Mark,Having read your posts over the last few weeks I have been consistently saddened by they tend to be personal attacks based on sweeping assumptions. For example, how can you say with breezy confidence that Luke never had “any sense of awe, fear, or reverence at all”. His posts about his former Christianity I see that he did indeed feel these thing. As for the motif of “falling in love with God” being an aberration of the Christian tradition, you surely know that this kind of language is common in a lot of Christian mysticism, from St Theresa to Julian of Norwich. Indeed, the whole motif of Jesus as lover was the basis for a huge quantity of medieval love poetry.  

This is something I wonder about a lot…to what degree are Christians allowed to act uncivilly? What if it brings more people to the Lord? Moving beyond incivility, what about changing an argument from “what are your evidential or pragmatic reasons for believing in X” to “what is it about your life-experiences that makes X look like an attractive option”? I think that the latter is perfectly acceptable, as long as you’re also willing to talk about the former.

Regardless, Mark’s sweeping statements are presumably based on a Biblical anthropology that he accepts because he’s a Christian. On some interpretations of the Bible, especially Romans 1:18-19, people have no excuse for not believing in God’s existence. Consequently, if you find someone who’s an atheist, he must be an atheist for some culpable reason.

It’s no worse, I think, than the atheists who think that Christianity is so irrational that anyone who believes in it has to have some sort of psychological defect.

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Fortuna December 19, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Mark;

Right. Because God couldn’t have a plan so far from your understanding that your brain could not even fathom it.

Are you submitting that this is, in fact, the case? If so, you lose the right to tell us that you know God’s plan is good, since it can’t be fathomed.

How dare that old Jewish Yahweh tyrant and his despot son “torture” so many millions! Forget that it’s men who kill each other, and deprive those in impoverished nations of food and water (as you yourself admitted in your conflicted letter above)

We don’t have to forget those things, there are quite a few natural horrors that inflict suffering on millions, Besides which, you’re also forgetting that Yahweh supposedly issued commands to kill people, and that Yahweh 2.0 is commonly believed to set people on fire for eternity.

Blame it on GOD. He’s gotta be guilty of SOMETHING, right?

Technically, if you’re omniscient and omnipotent, then everything is ultimately your responsibility.

Without the fear of God, I haven’t a clue as to how someone could believe in him.

Seems to me that you would need good reasons to think there was a God before you could fear him.

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Alex December 19, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Robert Gressis,

I agree with quite a bit of what you have said there and you are correct in noting such things cut both ways. However, incivility tends to put people’s heckles up and puts them on the defensive. This is why the New Atheists are not as serious, in my view, as they claim in wanted to persuade people out of religion, since they do not approach the topic in way that would win their arguments. If your intention is to change their minds, which will be certainly the case if you want to convert them to your viewpoint, there may well be better approaches than insulting people off the bat. Plus, from a Christian standpoint, I think there is a little something in there about words not having love being hollow. Then again, this was the same guy who said he might come at your gently, or with a whip and was not particularly into mincing his words.

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Robert Gressis December 19, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Alex,

One of your presuppositions is that if you act civilly you’re more likely to persuade people of things. I’m not sure that this is true; I think we’d need to look at the psychological literature (if there is any) to see whether civilly presented arguments for some conclusion C persuades people more than uncivilly presented argument for C. My gut suggests to me that most people are not persuaded by arguments anyway, so if you want to persuade people you’re going to have to do something else besides argue, but as I said, I’m going to have to look at the psychological literature to see what it says. (Happily, I’m going to look at this literature, if there is any, for a research project next semester.)

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Robert Gressis December 19, 2009 at 2:39 pm

@ Fortuna,

“Are you submitting that this is, in fact, the case? If so, you lose the right to tell us that you know God’s plan is good, since it can’t be fathomed.”

I don’t think that follows. Consider this case: Ed Witten, arguably the greatest physicist of all time, assures you that the variety of M-theories out there can be unified into string theory. You cannot for the life of you follow the math, but you know Ed to be a reliable authority when it comes to physics. Now imagine a smart physics grad student tells you that he’s proved that the M-theories couldn’t possibly be unified. Moreover, he presents his proof to you, and it’s fairly easy to understand. I don’t think there’s anything weird about responding: “Witten assures me that string theory is possible; Witten is a more authoritative figure when it comes to theoretical physics than you are; therefore, even though your proof looks pretty solid, and even though I can’t understand Witten’s rejoinder, I’m going to trust Witten over you.” You don’t have to respond, “well, I can’t understand Witten’s theory, so therefore I have to refrain from saying whether it is or isn’t coherent.”

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Fortuna December 19, 2009 at 3:36 pm

Robert;

Your example is analogous if Mark is claiming that some human(s) understand God’s plan and others (like Luke) don’t. It’s dis-analogous if he wants to claim that God’s plan is totally unfathomable to anyone other than Himself, in which case there can be no reliable human authorities….and Mark loses the right to say he knows it’s a good plan, at least on the basis of his own understanding. He could still claim that he knows it’s good a priori, since he could claim knowledge of an all-good God’s existence, and such a God would by definition have a good plan.

I’m pretty sure that Mark meant the latter though, since he used the phrase “a plan so far from your understanding that your brain could not even fathom it”. That certainly sounds like he’s referring to a plan that the human brain can’t grasp, although perhaps he was just really trying to insult Luke by implying that his brain in particular is defective. He can clear up the matter if he feels like it.

In any case, the contradiction, as I see it, is this; you can’t claim, on the one hand, that God’s plan is unfathomable by mere mortals, and then turn around and adduce reasons for why God’s plan is so spiffy. That implies that you fathom it, that you are in a position to judge its consequences. You must either retreat to the weaker claim that God’s plan is somewhat fathomable, and that you have grasped it sufficiently to judge it on its’ merits, or you have to stop trying to explain the consequentialist reasons Gods’ plan is good altogether, and simply assert belief in the goodness of his works on faith alone.

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Beelzebub December 19, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Robert Gressis: Regardless, Mark’s sweeping statements are presumably based on a Biblical anthropology that he accepts because he’s a Christian. On some interpretations of the Bible, especially Romans 1:18-19, people have no excuse for not believing in God’s existence. Consequently, if you find someone who’s an atheist, he must be an atheist for some culpable reason.

So you’re saying the Bible is ambiguous but in some interpretations the Bible claims to be unambiguous. But surely the frame of reference that should be used to judge ambiguity is ours. Now, you can argue that we’re dimwits and cannot see its lack of ambiguity, but the fact is that the Bible has existed now for 2000 years. Shouldn’t it have been accessible to all of us all along?

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Robert Gressis December 19, 2009 at 5:23 pm

“you’re saying the Bible is ambiguous but in some interpretations the Bible claims to be unambiguous.”

No, I wasn’t saying making a claim about the Bible being unambiguous; I was saying that the Bible’s meanings are often not easy to fully grasp, but that said, there are plausible readings of the Bible according to which God’s existence is unambiguous, but for sin.

“surely the frame of reference that should be used to judge ambiguity is ours.”

Surely not! Whether a text is ambiguous is a function of whether it would strike its intended audience as ambiguous, no? Maybe I misinterpreted what you meant.

“the fact is that the Bible has existed now for 2000 years. Shouldn’t it have been accessible to all of us all along?”

This strikes me as implausible: the Bible was written over hundreds of years by people in a wide variety of cultural contexts. Consequently, it’s not at all clear to me that its lessons should be accessible to a layperson without much training. This is part of the reason why tradition (and/or the Catholic Church) is so important to understanding the Bible.

That said, even if not all its lessons are accessible, it doesn’t follow that all its lessons are inaccessible. There could be some passages that are easily understandable by any layperson of below average or greater intelligence, and even if a layperson doesn’t fully or mostly understand many of the passages, the Bible, in conjunction with other Christians’ examples, could still be inspirational in modeling a good kind of life.

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Robert Gressis December 19, 2009 at 5:25 pm

“In any case, the contradiction, as I see it, is this; you can’t claim, on the one hand, that God’s plan is unfathomable by mere mortals, and then turn around and adduce reasons for why God’s plan is so spiffy. That implies that you fathom it, that you are in a position to judge its consequences. You must either retreat to the weaker claim that God’s plan is somewhat fathomable, and that you have grasped it sufficiently to judge it on its’ merits, or you have to stop trying to explain the consequentialist reasons Gods’ plan is good altogether, and simply assert belief in the goodness of his works on faith alone.”

I don’t think so. You could say, “I don’t understand the _specifics_ of God’s plan, so I can’t _explain_ to you _why_ it’s fathomable, but _that there is_ a plan, and _that it is a good one_, is something I know because God, an authority than which none is more reliable, has assured me of this.”

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Matt December 19, 2009 at 5:41 pm

Robert Gressis:
It’s no worse, I think, than the atheists who think that Christianity is so irrational that anyone who believes in it has to have some sort of psychological defect.

What if swore up and down that Santa Claus really rode around in a sleigh and delivered presents (that were made at the North Pole) to little boys and girls. We know that this is a myth and really not true (or even possible), but if I kept insisting that it is true and I structured my entire life around this idea, wouldn’t you think I had some sort of psychological defect?

Where do you draw the line on which beliefs deserve ridicule and which do not? Greek Mythology seems to be well documented, but if I really did believe that Atlas really did hold the world up upon his shoulders, wouldn’t you honestly believe I was being irrational?

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Robert Gressis December 19, 2009 at 6:15 pm

If you were just some guy on the street I met, and I was convinced that you believed what you said, then I would think you stupid or suffering from a psychological defect.

That said, I think the belief that God exists is markedly different from the claim that a person lives up at the north pole and delivers presents every year to boys and girls. The latter claim, for example, can be easily empirically disproved. Just look up around the north pole and see if Santa is there. See if there are any unexplained present givings to children, etc.

As for where I draw the line at beliefs that deserve ridicule, I ridicule almost no beliefs except for eliminative materialism.

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Matt December 20, 2009 at 8:40 am

Robert Gressis: If you were just some guy on the street I met, and I was convinced that you believed what you said, then I would think you stupid or suffering from a psychological defect.

Thank you for being honest.

I’ll be honest too, when I say that when I see stuff like this (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxVPOO3p7nc), I think these people are suffering from a psychological defect.

You cite empirical evidence in your refutation of Santa. I just don’t understand how people can behave like this (in the linked video) WITHOUT empirical evidence. You would probably counter that that is the definition of “faith”. But, as Mark Twain said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so”, and to me that is a psychological defect. It indicates a lack of reasoned, critical thinking, which I also think would be leveled against people who have a steadfast belief in leprechauns, which is something that also cannot be proved/disproved and for which there is no empirical evidence.

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Fortuna December 20, 2009 at 11:04 am

Robert;

The issue is not with whether you personally understand the plan as such, the question we’re discussing is whether any human being could understand it. If you take the position that God’s plan can’t be fathomed by humans, then from that point on, you cannot explain to us why it’s good in terms of the plans’ merits. The second you try, you are behaving as if you understand the plan, at least partially, and that contradicts your position.

If that’s your position, of course, note that I am not saying that this is in fact something you are obligated to defend. I am attempting to address a contradiction that may be present in Mark’s viewpoint.

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Robert Gressis December 20, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Matt:
Thank you for being honest.I’ll be honest too, when I say that when I see stuff like this (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxVPOO3p7nc), I think these people are suffering from a psychological defect.You cite empirical evidence in your refutation of Santa.I just don’t understand how people can behave like this (in the linked video) WITHOUT empirical evidence.You would probably counter that that is the definition of “faith”.But, as Mark Twain said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so”, and to me that is a psychological defect.It indicates a lack of reasoned, critical thinking, which I also think would be leveled against people who have a steadfast belief in leprechauns, which is something that also cannot be proved/disproved and for which there is no empirical evidence.  

Youtube told me that the link had a malformed ID. What was it a link to?

I can’t respond to most of the rest of what you said without seeing the video.

One thing, however: I don’t define faith as believing what you know ain’t so. I could offer you a glib definition of faith as trusting in something you already have reason to believe–for instance, faith that my wife loves me when I’m mad at her–but I think religious faith is probably a lot more complicated than that. I think it would be a worthy research project for me to try to figure out what faith is, and I’m starting on it (albeit obliquely) next semester. That said, I can’t give you a definition of faith right now (not that you were asking).

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Robert Gressis December 20, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Fortuna: Robert;The issue is not with whether you personally understand the plan as such, the question we’re discussing is whether any human being could understand it. If you take the position that God’s plan can’t be fathomed by humans, then from that point on, you cannot explain to us why it’s good in terms of the plans’ merits. The second you try, you are behaving as if you understand the plan, at least partially, and that contradicts your position.If that’s your position, of course, note that I am not saying that this is in fact something you are obligated to defend. I am attempting to address a contradiction that may be present in Mark’s viewpoint.  

Hi Fortuna,

I think we need to slow down a bit so we make sure we don’t talk past each other. I’m going to present my view on our knowledge of God’s providential plan, and then think about what you wrote above.

So, suppose I think God is a trustworthy authority. Suppose I think God lets people know that He is looking out for them. But now suppose that I admit as well that it often appears as though God is not looking out for them, and that it’s very hard for us, if not impossible, to understand how it could be that God’s letting what happens at least to some people is overall for the good.

I am not saying that we are completely in the dark about what God’s reasons are for letting things happen to people. I say we are partially in the dark. I think we can get to a certain point in describing the good that comes out of some evils. For instance, some evils really do make people appreciate the goods in life more; some evils really do seem to be deserved by people; some evils seem to be the cost of giving people free will; some evils turn people to God; and so on. (Obviously, some evils make some people jaded; some evils are undeserved; some evils seem to have nothing to do with free will; and some evils make people turn away from God; and so on.)

So, I think I can explain to some degree why God’s plan is good, but I admit that to some degree, perhaps a very large degree, I can’t explain how it could be that God’s plan is good. And perhaps it’s the case that it’s impossible for me or any other human being to explain, in a way any of us could understand, how it could be that God’s plan is for the good. (Indeed, perhaps God Himself can’t explain it to us given our limited cognitive abilities.)

So I admit that if I *cannot* *fully* fathom how God’s plan could be good for me and for you, then I of course cannot *fully* *explain* how God’s plan could be good for you and me. But it’s one thing to be able to partially or fully explain X, and it’s another thing to be justified in being assured that X has an explanation.

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Fortuna December 20, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Robert;

Thank you for explicating your position. I don’t think my dilemma applies to your views, since you are not making any strong claims about the comprehensibility of God’s plans. All I wish to point out is that if you want to take the position that God’s plan is unfathomable by humans, you’ve just eviscerated your own ability to discuss the merits of said plan in terms of its consequences. Once you go down that path, you are of course perfectly free to insist that you have it on good authority that the plan is good, it just becomes nonsensical for you to tell us about your own understanding of how the plan will work out for the best.

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Robert Gressis December 20, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Fortuna,

Barring a few qualifications here and there, that sounds about right to me.

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Nick Mitchell December 21, 2009 at 7:05 am

“I studied the New Testament texts and the Historical Jesus. I discovered that much of what the church had taught me was untrue or gravely misleading. Many of the New Testament letters are known to be forgeries even by the most conservative scholars. The books of the Bible are written by very different authors with very different theologies. The gospels contradict each other all over the place. And if there’s any consensus at all about who the Historical Jesus was, it’s that he was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet; a failed one at that, since the end of the world did not come in his generation. And the religion of Jesus was quite different than the later religion about Jesus, apparently launched by Paul. Moreover, I started to wonder: How could I accept the miracle stories about Jesus when I outright rejected other ancient miracle claims as superstitious nonsense?”

Hey Luke,

Have you ever read the writings of NT scholar N.T. Wright? You made some sweeping, and very misleading, statements. I would suggest you read some of his works to gain a different perspective.

I would suggest 1) Jesus and the Victory of God – Jesus was indeed a Jewish “Apocalyptic” Prophet but did this mean that Jesus expected the ‘end of the world’ to take place immediately? Jesus was announcing that God’s kingdom was breaking into the present and God was at last becoming King. Jesus believed that God was doing what he promised he would do for Israel, and for the whole world, and that it was coming true through him. Yet this didn’t always look like what the people expected…..Anyways, you can read it for yourself; 2) The Resurrection of the Son of God and 3) What Saint Paul Really Said – Although I don’t agree with everything Wright says in this book it is a great response to the statement you make about Paul’s teaching not being in line with what Jesus spoke. Paul actually did believe that through Jesus Israel’s story had reached it’s climax. God was rescuing his people like he did in the Exodus but now it was taking place through the Messiah, Jesus. Now if you want to be a part of God’s covenant people you must believe in Jesus. Again, so much more to be said but I would suggest you read these books before making such sweeping statements.

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lukeprog December 21, 2009 at 11:51 am

Nick,

Wright is a pretty bad historian, I think. See here.

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Robert Gressis December 21, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Perhaps this is a defect on my part, but when I find any many personal attacks in a review as Price gives in his first paragraph, my “this is a person with an ideological ax to grind” antennae go up. Take just this sentence: “Genuine criticism of the gospels he dismisses as the less advanced, muddled thinking of a previous generation, as if “cutting edge” scholarship like his were not actually pathetic nostalgia for the sparkling Toyland of fundamentalist supernaturalism. It is a familiar bag of tricks, and that is all it is. The tragedy is that many today are falling for it. Witness Wright’s own prominence in the Society of Biblical Literature, to say nothing of his ecclesiastical clout.”

Ouch! Wright’s thinking is pathetic, and those otherwise sensible people in the Society of Biblical Literature are falling for Wright’s pathetic thinking.

That said, I don’t have enough expertise to really assess whether or not Price is being fair to Wright, but I’m already skeptical of him, just based on his tone.

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Omgredxface December 21, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Nice, I cant wait for the response. These letters are soo much fun.

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bondChristian December 21, 2009 at 2:05 pm

So I’m visiting from Challies. This is totally exciting. I’ve ventured over here before but never stuck around too long. This time, though, I think the life story really intrigued me. In many ways, it’s my story – I just went the other way in the end. Thank you for taking the time to outline it.

I’ve enjoyed a number of these types of conversations, and as a Challies reader, I’m particularly interested in hearing this with him involved. As I write this comment, I haven’t read what he wrote (though I will as soon as I finish here). From what I can see in your post here, though, I’m impressed, as I have been the few times I’ve read here in the past. As a Christian, I obviously disagree about some of the big issues you’ve raised, but I respect the way you’ve gone about writing this so far.

Totally looking forward to reading the rest of this.

-Marshall Jones Jr.

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Tom December 21, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Also a Challies reader–and a Christian who was an atheist for a while in college (MANY years ago). I’m curious about some of the statements you make:

“Many of the New Testament letters are known to be forgeries even by the most conservative scholars. The books of the Bible are written by very different authors with very different theologies. The gospels contradict each other all over the place.”

Aside from the books of the Bible being written by very different authors, I can’t recognize any of these statements. Can anyone out there give me an example of what you’re talking about?

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lukeprog December 21, 2009 at 7:56 pm

bondChristian,

Thanks for chiming in.

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kennethos December 21, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Well, this is interesting. Luke chimes in with his “life story.” Then, Mark gives a bit of a rebuttal.
In many way, I’m glad. Because Luke’s story is simplistic at best (no offense, Luke!). Going to university, and being taught what is, quite frankly, liberal critical garbage about Christianity and the Bible, without a chance to actually study within Christian community? My word, how utterly irrational, unthinking, and foolish! It’s akin to studying Black History as taught by a KKK Grand Master, or perhaps an Aryan Nation person teaching Jewish History. You’re in for a world of trouble! If that’s what your university taught you regarding religion, then ask for a refund, because it’s highly likely they defrauded you in other areas. All the NT books being forgeries, the Bible being full of contradictions (as opposed to the standard typical difficult passages)…these are standard anti-Christian ploys which are academically embarrassing. I’d even think they were beneath you, Luke, except I’m beginning to wonder…. As you tell your story, I question , if you simply gave up too soon, too easily, then spend your life whining about how God failed you, in your pursuit of a “blind faith.” If I had a blind faith, instead of a reasoning faith, I too might be in a hard place.
To be intellectually honest with yourself, take a look at the story of a confirmed atheist, originally raised Catholic, who returned to faith later in life, and see if you’re missing something. Heard of Anne Rice? Take a look at the author’s note at the end of Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. (I’m not saying read the book, though it’s excellent, but rather, read the note.) It describes her life, and it may be of interest to you.

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lukeprog December 22, 2009 at 12:11 am

kennethos,

What are you talking about? I didn’t study Christianity or the Bible at university. I studied all that within the Christian community, exactly as you accused me of not doing.

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David Cooke December 22, 2009 at 3:39 am

Thank you for your thoughtful post and I am sorry that so quickly on the comments Christian’s failed to show you grace. Gracelessness is sadly so very prevalent and so contrary to Jesus and the gospel. Anyway, bless you for this interesting dialogue and your honest personal story. Tim has a wonderful blog and yours too is a happy discovery so I look forward to the letters that will follow.

Grace for Christmas my friend and thanks again.

David

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kennethos December 22, 2009 at 7:28 am

Luke:
This becomes confusing in some ways. You state in your story that you studied to find out who Jesus was. Your conclusions do not sound like the teachings of any church or group that professes Jesus as Lord, but rather, sound like they’re coming out of a skeptical university religion department, or perhaps out of the published works of the Jesus Seminar.
Now, you tell me you studied within Christian community (i.e., a church, Bible study, etc.) to gain these conclusions, which are antithetical to biblical Christian teaching. Can you see why Christians on this thread might be somewhat confused by you? Keep details of your life, initial spiritual development, and intellectual growth are either not present, or not described fully, leaving some of us wondering who you are, what you believe/don’t believe, and why.
It’s akin to a Beattles fan going off to study the Beattles with a group that hates the Beattles, and then wondering why. It’s a non sequitor that doesn’t make sense.
So please, enlighten those of us who are wondering. Where did you go in your university years (or whenever) to learn about Jesus, that fed you that stuff? Which church, or Christian community, taught you that the NT books were forgeries, that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet, and the like? I’m curious to know about the group, because they seem to have failed you, if their mission was to teach you about following Christ.
And, thank you for a prompt response.

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lukeprog December 22, 2009 at 8:49 am

kennethos,

I didn’t study Jesus or the Bible or Christianity or religion at all while at the University of Minnesota.

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kennethos December 22, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Luke:
Alright…it’s been established that you attended Univ. of Minnesota, and didn’t study religion or theology at all while you were there. OK.
So, *where* did you study or learn about Jesus, in the community of faith, that taught you all the skeptical/ critical stuff about Jesus?

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kennethos December 22, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Luke:

I suppose it’s easier to ask this way:
1) What community of faith (presumably in addition to self-study) were you part of, which taught you about Jesus, and led you away from Christian faith? (Church, home group, etc.)
2) I’m assuming that in addition to critical/skeptical material on Jesus and Christianity, you must also have read conservative/believing material as well, designed to bolster one’s faith, to be equally well-informed, and make a truly informed, intelligent decision. What were the books/authors you read, and most persuasive reasons in favor of faith in Christ and Christianity, and the reasons you ultimately found them lacking?
Thanks.

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lukeprog December 22, 2009 at 3:25 pm

kennethos,

Books and articles by all kinds of scholars, both Christian and non-Christian. Much of the time I had no idea if the book I was reading by a Christian or not. I wanted a well-rounded presentation of the ideas. Look for the post ‘My Journey to Atheism’ for a few example book titles.

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kennethos December 22, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Well, Luke, you still haven’t answered #1, the community of faith issue, who taught you, in addition to what you read.

Re: #2….most of the time, you had no idea if the book you were reading was written by somebody who was actually a Christian or not? I’m not sure how scary this might be… or how much of a lack of understanding. If I’m reading something, I’d like to have an idea of its relation to the subject matter (pro or con) and if the author is authoritative or not (i.e., Bart Ehrman will be highly critical of Christian faith; NT Wright will be very supportive of Christian faith). This is the very foundation of intellectually honest scholarship.
I’ll take a look at the list you reference in your blog entry. It’ll be interesting to see what pro- stuff you read. ‘Cause if you believe everything on the critical side, that would be quite the leap of faith.

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kennethos December 22, 2009 at 6:08 pm

After reading the entries on books, etc…
Hmm….so you’re a PK, who went off to college, and read mostly critical books about Christianity. That was your spiritual community, and the reading list. If the most conservative thing you read was NT Wright…that explains a few things. Maybe that’s why you couldn’t answer otherwise simple questions before.
I’m starting to wonder…how intellectually honest are you being with yourself? And with us? What I’m hearing is someone who was ill-prepared to face the world, sought to test himself, and after imbibing the poisons of the critical fountain, failed the test and was poisoned. You ingested some of the most spiritually destructive stuff known to man, and became an atheist…no surprise. Now, try looking at the other side. Check out Tim Keller’s The Reason for God as a start. Give the Gospel an honest chance.

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lukeprog December 22, 2009 at 7:21 pm

kennethos,

As I’ve said, I read way more apologetics material than critical material, because I was trying to preserve my faith. Keller’s book was among them.

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Susan December 23, 2009 at 11:04 am

Hey Luke, you need to be honest here. Keller’s book was only published in 2008, but you “deconverted” in 2007. I’m guessing you haven’t read it.

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lukeprog December 23, 2009 at 11:56 am

Susan,

No, I didn’t read it ‘during’ my deconversion, but I read it shortly after the book came out. That one I actually saw at my library in Minnesota. I was once planning to do a post series responding to it here, but that one went on the way-back-burner.

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Aaron December 24, 2009 at 4:13 am

Hi Luke, just wanted to say that I really appreciate the dialogue you’ve started with Tim Challies. I’m looking forward to reading more of the back-and-forth between the two of you.

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Joel Duggins January 9, 2010 at 8:35 pm

I am reading the letters posted both here and on Challies.com. As someone coming from a position very near Challies himself, I quite approve of the idea of calm rational discussion between Atheists and Christians, and I am discouraged by the harsh comments that invariably show up in responses to communications like these letters. With that said, I do have a question to raise. It has already, more or less, come up in the comments line, but I don’t see a satisfactory answer. You say that your “de-converting” (forgive the quotation marks) came about inside of the Christian community. I am curious. What Christian community was it? You understand, of course, that from the perspective of myself and of most other readers of Challies.com, many professedly Christian churches and groups are not actually Christian. I compare these “Christian” groups to someone who believes in a deity and yet claims to be an atheist. So, my question: What Christian community were you in? Please be at least moderately specific.

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kennethos January 9, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Joel:

If you read through all the comments here, you may have found that I also tried asking Luke this question, especially after he admitted learning what he learned (i.e., imbibing higher critical works about the historical Jesus, early church, etc.), in his “community of faith.” Well, Luke never did answer me (none that I could find or track, at least) on this subject. So I had to find out on this blog, via his “about” section. Turns out Luke is a PK, from Minnesota, and it appears his “community of faith” was the church his father pastored. Not sure which one this was, or precisely what it taught him about faith, the church, Jesus, etc. Parts of this story Luke has not yet told….

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lukeprog January 9, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Joel,

My father is a non-denominational evangelical protestant pastor. Basically Baptist theology, but our church did a lot of work on “church unity” (aka ecumenicism). Here is the website.

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Joel Duggins January 9, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Thank you, Luke, I appreciate that. The website explains a few things, such as your repeated statements about someone’s feelings as evidence for a belief system. (You claim that Christians, Muslims, etc all have these feelings)
Your exposure to Christianity- at least in this church- is, seemingly, an exposure to a section of Christianity that over emphasizes (in my opinion) personal experience and under emphasizes (in my opinion) objective realities. (hence the common occurrence on the website of phrases like “regularly encounter God’s presence”)

Incidentally, faith and feeling are two different things. Are you familiar with Saint Augustine’s contrast of faith and reason?

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lukeprog January 9, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Joel,

There’s almost nothing on that site. How did you get all that from the website? I think you’re desperate to say I “was never really a Christian,” which is really annoying.

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Joel Duggins January 10, 2010 at 5:09 pm

If I came across as antagonistic to that church, I do apologize. I merely wanted to say that the website seems to partially explain one of the “lines of attack” that you make against Christianity.
And, though I wasn’t trying to communicate this in any way, you are correct in thinking that I believe that you were never a Christian, in the ultimate sense of the word “Christian.” Please do not be annoyed by that, it is a doctrine that I hold to, and it applies to anyone that “stops being a Christian.” (Forgive the quotation marks)
I apologize for any communication mistakes on my part.

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