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Faith Subsiding: Transitioning from Believer to Skeptic

By Jake ~

Preface:

I would first like to take the opportunity to address my reader on a personal level. As I am writing, I expect that there will be an array of motivations for which people request this explanation. Intuition leads me to suspect that said motivations will likely include curiosity, disbelief, confusion, hurt, and anger. The last two of these are the most regrettable. However, I appreciate your interest regardless of how or why it was fueled. It should go without saying, but for clarity’s sake I will explain why a very select few of you have received my confession without asking. You are the people closest to me. The possibility of my current standing on belief damaging our relationship is one that leaves me nervous and apprehensive. My deepest wish is that although we may hold views that are nearly diametrically opposed, we will still be able to find common ground and mutual respect in spite of our differences.

My next point of concern is the potential misinterpretation of my intent. As you peruse this essay, one point cannot be overemphasized. PLEASE do not take my critique of my previous faith as a malicious attack on you or your beliefs. I am writing this simply to provide an explanation as to how I could reach this position after holding such devout belief. Convincing others of my case for doubt is not my desired outcome (NOTE: I am not arrogant enough to believe that I hold such profound influence over the people in my life that I could rob them of their faith. I am simply attempting to make my intentions as clear as possible). However, a word of caution is necessary. This essay will at times be critical of core tenets of my old religious beliefs that will inevitably be part of some of your own creeds. I apologize in advance for any offense incurred by my skepticism. I concede that it’s possible I should keep some of my doubts to myself; the decision to write this essay was by no means an easy one. But, with that said, I cannot very well just abandon a faith I so vehemently defended without explaining my reasons.

The last point I want to address is that of the anticipated response from the readers of this essay. No doubt at least some of you will feel the need to speak to my doubts and guide me back to the flock. Others will likely be angered and want to chastise me for my “arrogance”. I am open to discussion of any of the topics presented in this essay with anyone interested in doing so. I only ask that you keep one thing in mind if preparing a response. Please try to keep the knee jerk reactions of anger in check, as I will do the same when responding to you. Believe me, I understand the difficulty involved in doing so. However, clear and calm discussion will be essential in order to preserve good relations in the future. Without further ado, I invite you into the story chronicling my transition from faith to reason.

Introduction:

Religion’s influence permeates practically every aspect of the human experience. Culture, politics, ethics, philosophy, and even science are all susceptible to some contact with or influence from religion on one plane or another. My own personal development was profoundly guided by faith. As are many in the southern region of the US, I was raised to believe in a fundamentalist/evangelical Christian worldview. Until the age of 16 or so, I attended churches that were part of the Church of God, a Pentecostal denomination. I then attended non-denominational churches until the age of 22. Non-denominational churches (at least the ones I have attended) are very close to the Church of God and Assemblies of God with respect to doctrine. I do not actually have a copy of the official creeds of any of the aforementioned churches. However, I will give an “unofficial” list, roughly in order of ascending importance, of the major theological tenets these groups profess:

  • There is one God.
  • God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ (who existed before time with God).
  • Belief and profession that Jesus is the Son of God who died for the sins of mankind is the ONLY way to obtain salvation.
  • God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit form the Trinity.
  • The Bible is God’s word to mankind. It is inerrant both internally and externally and is to be interpreted literally.
  • Humans possess an eternal soul that will spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell.
  • Believers are/can be filled with the Holy Spirit, evidenced by speaking in tongues.

This essay will recollect my examination of these listed beliefs during the past two years. I will explain my reasons for coming to doubt each one, subsequently leading to the progressive erosion of my theology.

Part I: The Formative Years

Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.
-Proverbs 22:6 (NIV)

I am certain that some readers, when confronted with my apostasy, will develop their own personal opinions about my “true” reasons. Over these assumptions, I have no real control. However, there is one possible claim that I should put to rest before it is even suggested. Among the myriad of possibilities, the most erroneous assumption that can be made is to think that lack of proper instruction on the part of my parents is to blame. From as far back as my memories can stretch, my parents raised me to know, love and fear God. I was instructed in the Bible from a very young age. Both my father and mother, although still human like anyone else, were superb examples as to how I should model my life according to the Bible’s teaching. I was taught to align all of my actions according to the blueprints contained therein. Like the majority of children raised in Christian homes, I was saved as a young child (7 years old to be exact). Most of the major details of the event still remain fresh in my memory. My parents had company over (I cannot recall exactly who was there) to watch a filmed version of the popular play “Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Flames”. The horror experienced at realizing that I was a sinner in danger of Hell was overwhelmingly frightening. I asked my parents if I was going to go there. As I am sure the reader can foretell, my parents then led me to Christ that night. It was explained to me that Jesus had died for me and I did not have to go to such a frightful place. I eagerly prayed the sinner’s prayer and felt the euphoric sensation many people experience when first accepting salvation. My journey in the Christian walk had just begun.

Through the years to follow, my growth and development was built on a foundation of Christian principles and teaching. During these years (and still to this day) my parents were involved in the ministry. They started off as youth ministers, eventually transitioning to pastoring. Along the way, there were other smaller “sub ministries”, if I may coin a term, that they were involved with. These included outreaches such as prison and nursing home ministries. I was encouraged to read and study for myself in order to seek out God’s plan for my life. While I was not forced, my father and mother instilled in me a desire to carry on my own personal devotion. I was given multiple small opportunities to participate in ministry as well. Occasionally I was a part of youth services. Youth services were an interesting custom of some of the churches I was involved with as a teen/pre-teen. Simply put, the youth group was given the opportunity to run church services once a month or so. The church youth was called upon to teach Sunday school classes, open services in prayer, sing, and occasionally a teen would even preach. Here I must diverge a bit and reflect on my state of mind at the time in order to avoid any confusion. I did not resent any of these experiences. Pleasing God was a pursuit I chased earnestly. The opportunity to be a part of God’s work was an honor. A wealth of religious experiences surround this period of my life, but I will leave them unspoken in order to devote more time to the more relevant information.

Part II: Rebellion

If the night I accepted Jesus as my savior is typical of most children in orthodox Christian homes, I suppose my adolescent rebellion is even more so. Nearly everyone can relate to the tendency teenagers have to explore their identity and stray from the straight and narrow while doing so. I was certainly no exception. If the reader will forgive me for going on a brief tangent, I would like to comment on the peculiar mentality I suspect is common to believers who stray. I cannot speak for everyone, but I know that I believed I was playing a dangerous game. My beliefs forced me to acknowledge that I was a “backslider”. By partaking of the things that I did, I had walked out from under God’s shield of grace. I believed that if I were to die suddenly and unexpectedly, without having time to repent, I was going straight to Hell. In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure how I (along with the others I suspect have had the same mentality) coped with such thoughts. The best solution I can propose is that I simply forced the thought from my mind. The workings of human psychology fascinate me. Anyway, I digress; I shall move back toward my story.

Mild rebellion was an integral part of my life through my last years of high school and into my first years of college. I never really got into anything terribly destructive, no drugs at all and only one or two instances with alcohol in college. I believed this was really irrelevant though. My spiritual life was incredibly lax and I still willfully did things I knew were wrong. It was not as if I would go to a “lighter Hell” if I died because I had only made it to a 5 on some imaginary sin scale of 1 to 10. Christian doctrine told me that all unforgiven sins brought about the same punishment. Though my actions had changed, my beliefs never did. I can actually recall buying an album at this time that contained two songs with lyrics I found so blasphemous that I could not bring myself to listen to them (“Rapture” and “The Priest and the Matador” by Senses Fail; if the reader is curious enough to look up the lyrics). Practice may not have shown me to be a Christian, but my beliefs were certainly Christian. Again, for the sake of time I will leave out the rest of the details of this part of my life. Hopefully I have given enough of a summary for the reader to get the gist.

Part III: Spiritual Awakening

Deeply personal events occurring close to my transfer from community college to a four year university caused me to seriously ponder the direction of my life and the state of my spirituality. The sensitive nature of these events and the people involved will prevent me from expounding upon them with too much detail. What is necessary to convey is that I had experiences that began to put life into a much more serious perspective. Carefree teenage mentality had started to dissolve in light of the realization that I was living in a real world with real problems and evils. I felt that my life was in dire need of the faith that I had strayed from. Believers generally identify such feelings as “conviction” from God. Naturally, I identified them as such. I continued to wrestle with these feelings for a period of about one year until I finally broke under the burden I was carrying. In a picture perfect moment that could probably be written and sold on bookshelves under “Christian Inspiration”, I re-committed my life to God. As others with similar experiences can attest, the sensation of renewal and reconciliation is euphoric and possibly more intense than the original salvation experience.
My life now felt as if it was set ablaze with purpose and an insatiable desire to advance the cause of Jesus Christ. Early mornings found me studying my Bible alone in my car while waiting for classes to start. No longer was I satisfied with having read through the gospels a few years before. I felt a responsibility to know scripture and to interpret it for application in my daily life. Per direction from Hebrews 10:25, I plugged myself into a church community. My participation in church activity during these few years was very devout. My involvement spanned from participation in music ministry to occasional outings going door to door to invite people to church. While focused on getting my degree and preparing myself for a career, I was also earnestly seeking God to find his calling for my life. For a period of about three years my faith was the pinnacle of my existence. Ironically, my desire to grow in knowledge of Christ and my faith in him would eventually bring me to the state where I came to doubt.

The realization that Christianity faced intense criticism in a world of increasing knowledge of science, psychology, and philosophy prompted me to start probing into early church history and Biblical canonization. My mindset during this period was not characterized by doubt, but by curiosity. Like nearly everyone else who believes, I was completely aware that the Bible did not descend from the sky in its current form. I believed it was penned by men through the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit, but was unaware of how it was assembled. Along with the establishment of the Biblical canon, I was intrigued by what I perceived to be other minor issues such as the fact that Protestantism was not birthed until the 16th century. I had no doubts about what I believed; I simply wanted to learn how these beliefs developed. I wanted to learn the responses to criticisms of the faith in order to equip myself with the necessary tools to answer skeptics. A desire for knowledge led me to enroll in a New Testament survey course during my senior year of college. The course I took was taught from a Christian apologetic perspective (For anyone unfamiliar with the term, apologetics is basically the method of defending the faith through tools such as history, archaeology, scripture, and even philosophy and science). Taking this course familiarized me with Biblical exegesis, hermeneutics, canonization, and the Hellenization of intertestamental Palestine. Course material centered on the four canonized gospels addressed topics such as the order in which they were written, authorship, the Christologies presented and the Synoptic Problem. As I studied and learned I found it more difficult to remain very conservative in my faith. However, I was still a devout believer in the deity of Jesus and his role as messiah. By the end of the course I would characterize myself as a liberal Christian with respect to my position on Biblical literalism and absolute inerrancy. The rest of this essay will expound on the issues I encountered that forced me to reconsider my position on my religion.

Part IV: Biblical Analysis

I know with near absolute certainty that this will be the point from which my readers begin to take the highest degree of offense. I request that the reader make an honest attempt to stomach the offense and persevere through in order to understand my reasons for leaving the fold. The realization that the world contains more than one book claiming the authoritative position of divine authorship convinces me that critical examination of scripture should not only be permitted, but that it is an individual responsibility bestowed upon all. Being raised in a Christian environment was almost solely based on the geography of my birthplace, as is true for those born into Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Mormonism. Despite all my best efforts, I am unable to conclude that God allowed me to be born into the true religion and forbade me from questioning my own holy book. The implication within would be that he allowed billions to be born into other religions with their only chance of salvation contingent upon them critically examining what has been given to them as the divine word. God would certainly be capricious and arbitrary if this were the case. With this mindset, I now present what I understand as irreconcilable in the Bible.

Old Testament Examination

Many Christian believers (along with myself) are appalled in the deepest moral sense by the Muslim extremists’ practice of Jihad. They find it inconceivable that a God could demand such merciless slaughter of his creation. I share this standpoint and take offense alongside them. However, I feel that to some degree a double standard is implemented when comparing Qur’an teachings on violence alongside those contained in the Bible. Consider the following passages to learn the Biblical position on genocide and violence:

When Sihon and all his army came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz, 33 the LORD our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. 34 At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed[c] them—men, women and children. We left no survivors. 35 But the livestock and the plunder from the towns we had captured we carried off for ourselves. 36 From Aroer on the rim of the Arnon Gorge, and from the town in the gorge, even as far as Gilead, not one town was too strong for us. The LORD our God gave us all of them. 37 But in accordance with the command of the LORD our God, you did not encroach on any of the land of the Ammonites, neither the land along the course of the Jabbok nor that around the towns in the hills. — Deuteronomy 2:32-37

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. 16 However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy[a] them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God. — Deuteronomy 20:10-18

All Christians are familiar with the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho, most likely from Sunday school as a child. When taught to children, the story usually ends with the crumbling of the city walls. However, adult believers know (or at least should know) that this is not the end of the story:

20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.— Joshua 6:20-21

10 So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children. 11 “This is what you are to do,” they said. “Kill every male and every woman who is not a virgin.” 12 They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women who had never slept with a man, and they took them to the camp at Shiloh in Canaan. — Judges 21:10-12

1 Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. 2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy[a] all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” — 1 Samuel 15:1-3

10 “A curse on anyone who is lax in doing the LORD’s work!
A curse on anyone who keeps their sword from bloodshed! — Jeremiah 48:10

Pages of the Bible are at times bloodstained not only from genocide, but by singular instances of bizarre divine punishment. Consider the following:

35 By the word of the LORD one of the company of the prophets said to his companion, “Strike me with your weapon,” but he refused. 36 So the prophet said, “Because you have not obeyed the LORD, as soon as you leave me a lion will kill you.” And after the man went away, a lion found him and killed him. — 1 Kings 20:35-36

23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. 25 And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.—2 Kings 2:23-25

I am equally alarmed to find that certain biblical passages strongly imply conditional justifications for rape. I challenge the reader to take notice of the instances in the above quoted passages where the virgins were spared. In a time where men were permitted multiple wives and concubines, I think it is most obvious what fate awaited these poor girls. However, I will admit that this implication is based mainly on speculation. The following passages are a bit more clear:

15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. — Numbers 31:15-18

I find the argument that this passage does not explicitly say the word “rape” to be incredibly naïve. Why else would Moses instruct the men to “save for yourselves” the virgins? The only reason the argument against the passage’s position on rape is even proposed is because of the presupposition that the Bible is the sacred and divine word of God.

20 So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, “Go and hide in the vineyards 21 and watch. When the young women of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, rush from the vineyards and each of you seize one of them to be your wife. Then return to the land of Benjamin. 22 When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Do us the favor of helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war. You will not be guilty of breaking your oath because you did not give your daughters to them.’” — Judges 21:20-22

So the women were kidnapped, and then “married”. I cannot understand how this can be conceived as anything other than rape. The fact that the instruction to plead with the fathers and brothers was given (note that the women are never given any choice in the matter) in no way negates that the women were forcibly married. I ask the parents reading this to question if they would not consider it rape had their own daughters been kidnapped and “married”.

I know my tone in exploring the above passages will almost inevitably come across as antagonistic, although this is not my wish. My intention is not to attack the Bible, simply to explain some of the reasons I lost faith in it. Do not be mistaken by assuming that coming to terms with the offense incurred when I read these passages was easy. Like many of my readers will most likely do while reading the quoted passages, I grasped at straws for a long time in order to rationalize and accept the atrocities of the Old Testament. My mind was put at ease by arguments to the tune of “God defines morality and therefore is not subject to it” “It was intended for the time in which it was written” “The people slaughtered were being punished for attacks on Israel”, and so on. My opinion now is that adhering to rationalizations for these passages requires complete emotional detachment from the egregious events depicted. I cannot erase from my mind the images of mothers scrambling frantically to rescue or hide their children. Unspeakable horror must have suspended the breathing of innocent children as their mothers and fathers were slaughtered before their eyes. No help came for them; they died by the swords and spears of God’s chosen people. It seems impossible to me that events of genocide could have ever been commanded by a benevolent or just God. Here I invoke the concept of Ockham’s razor. Why is the most obvious explanation not the correct one? The ancient world was barbaric and cruel. Therefore, the ancients’ gods would naturally be depicted as violent and merciless. I believe that the Bible has been heavily influenced by man, and not vice-versa.

One of the strongest arguments I’ve heard Christian apologists present in order to distinguish Old Testament commands for violence from those in the Qur’an is based on the fact that the Bible commands were not open ended. The defense is made that the Bible salvages some moral high ground because the commands of slaughter are only given for specific instances, while the Qur’an endorses ongoing Jihad. My problem with this rationale is that it subjects God, who supposedly exists outside of time, to an approval of slaughter as long as it was within a short enough time period. It is as if God was okay with commanding genocide for a certain number of years, but He was appalled if it continued into the 21st century. I find it illogical that God would have a certain body count he would tolerate, contingent upon their murder having been committed during the right historical era. This point is not given to show sympathy to Muslim extremists in any way whatsoever, but to explain that I cannot see any fundamental difference between the passages I quoted and modern acts of terrorism.

Another objection that soothed my conscience for a long time was that all of this material is plucked from the Old Testament. Jesus abolished all of that when he came, and he is all that matters, right? I cannot understand this mentality either. Orthodox Christianity has adopted the Christology that Jesus pre-existed time alongside God the Father. Ergo, Jesus was privy to all of these occurrences since he was one with Yahweh. The only logical conclusion that I can draw is that this insinuates that Jesus endorsed the murders committed by the Israelites. Even if one holds some differing theological position that excludes Jesus from involvement, I still cannot wrap my head around the belief that these horrors could still somehow be the word of God. I have heard a few apologists depart from the belief in inerrancy because of these and other Old Testament passages. This doesn’t make sense to me either because if biblical inerrancy is sacrificed in one part of scripture, how is it retained for any other part of the Bible?

Furthermore, I think that this line of reasoning suggests that morality should define religion, not vice versa. In fact, the very attempt to rationalize such passages brings to mind a quote by the physicist Steven Weinberg, "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion ". This quote rings especially true for me when some of the genuinely good hearted people I know make defenses for the Old Testament. Were it not for their belief that the events were condoned by God, they would under no circumstances justify such horror.

New Testament Examination:

In defense of the validity of Christianity’s truth claims, I often encounter the argument that the Gospels must be true because they were written independently and are still harmonious. However, this is not the consensus of biblical scholars, even among those who are devout believers. The most prevalent theory held is that Mark was written first. Most scholars contend that Matthew and Luke followed, using Mark as a source alongside a theorized document called “Q”. “Q” is believed to be a lost collection of sayings and teachings of Jesus and is represented by the material common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark. John is believed to have been written latest among the four canonical gospels. Mark, Matthew, and Luke are referred to as the Synoptic gospels. The difference in accounts among these three gospels is referred to as the Synoptic problem. In my opinion, the mere acknowledgement of the Synoptic problem by scholars deals a detrimental blow to the claim of the harmony among them, but I will get into this later. It is worth noting though that I was introduced to the Synoptic problem by a Christian apologetic textbook. John is excluded from classification as a synoptic gospel because he diverges from the other three gospel authors a great deal both theologically and chronologically.

Although I’m sure many believers are very well aware of the variance among the gospels, I will admit that they can often be very easily overlooked. This occurs primarily because the gospels are generally read sequentially, not simultaneously. There is a large volume of works targeted at both criticizing and harmonizing the Synoptic problem (as well as the differences between John and the synoptics). Therefore, in light of all the material available to the reader, I will only briefly comment on the issues I found the most problematic. It should be noted that many contend that the variations among the gospels may not necessarily be contradictory. The argument is made that although one author presents scenario “A” and another presents scenario “B” the accounts do not actually preclude the possibility of scenario “A + B”. However, in most of the instances I will mention, I find this scenario highly implausible and it seems impossible for others. But, my opinion is not authoritative and I am no scholar on New Testament studies. I simply see a conflict (with authoritative scholars on both sides) and I have to take a position on the issue using my most sound judgment.

Keeping in mind that Mark is almost unanimously believed to have been written first, I find it incredibly odd that he (along with John) makes no mention of the virgin birth narrative. Anytime two versions of the same story are presented, the earlier and less fantastic story is almost always more accurate. Stories are rarely watered down, but they are very commonly embellished in order to accomplish an author’s agenda, whether said agenda is theological or not. I cannot understand how such a fundamental element of the Jesus story was original but was left out by the earliest gospel author. It would be perfectly reasonable that Mark left out this major detail if it was foreign to him. I think the later gospel authors almost certainly added this detail under the influence of pre-existing mythology concerning pagan demi gods. However, Matthew and Luke are by no means in total agreement concerning the events of the virgin birth narrative. The genealogies they both present for Jesus directly contradict one another. Matthew names Jacob the father of Joseph (Matthew 1:16), while Luke claims Heli is the father of Joseph (Luke 3:23). The two genealogies only agree on Joseph’s ancestry for the generations from Abraham to David. In all other aspects, they contradict one another.

Looking beyond the genealogies, Luke apparently had no knowledge of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents or the escape to Egypt contained in Matthew. It is often proposed that Luke very well may have interviewed Mary as his source for the birth narrative (see Luke 1:1-4, 2:51). His silence with respect to the events depicted in Matthew initially appears very odd. However, closer examination of Matthew’s account provides what I perceive to be an obvious clue as to why he diverges so far from Luke. Read the following verse:

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”[c] — Matthew 2:14-15

In the above verse Matthew is quoting Hosea 11:1. Is his interpretation of the Old Testament scripture valid?

1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.[a]
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
Hosea 11:1-2

Matthew has taken one portion of a single verse completely out of context in order to manufacture a prophecy fulfillment. The author of Hosea is clearly recounting the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. In the same chapter Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15 to ground the slaughter of the infants in Old Testament prophecy. However, the passage in Jeremiah is about the Babylonian exile and is not a messianic prophecy. The very next section of Jeremiah 31 depicts God assuring the grieving mothers that their sons will return from the land of exile and there is still hope for their descendants. Matthew is at odds with Luke on so many details because he was writing his account with an intended Jewish audience (remember from the first few verses of Luke’s gospel that he was writing to Theophilus). Therefore, Matthew’s aim was to convince his Jewish readers that Jesus was the prophesied messiah.

Matthew’s employment of Old Testament “prophecy” causes problems beyond simply contradicting his virgin birth story with the one presented in Luke. In Matthew 1:23, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 to assert that Jesus’ virgin birth was another fulfillment of messianic prophecy. The problem I see is that he has again taken a small fraction of a verse completely out of context. Isaiah chapter 7 deals with King Ahaz’s fear of being conquered. Read the following:

“‘It will not take place, it will not happen,
8 for the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.
9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.’”
10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.”
13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you[c] a sign: The virgin[d] will conceive and give birth to a son, and[e] will call him Immanuel.[f] 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.
Isaiah 7:7-16

The “prophecy” here is not even messianic in nature. The virgin conception prophesied here was given as a sign for Ahaz to observe within his lifetime (notice the “within 65 years” clause). Matthew later quotes Isaiah 53:4 to claim messianic prophecy fulfillment upon the exorcism of a demon possessed man by Jesus. The book of Isaiah contains the recurring motif of the suffering servant. Chapter 53, directly preceded by the last bit of chapter 52, is a description of this servant. Christians recognize the suffering servant as Jesus, ergo the suffering servant passages are interpreted as messianic prophecy. I disagree with this analysis. The suffering servant is a metaphor for Israel and the time spent in captivity. Consider the following passages:

21 “Remember these things, Jacob,
for you, Israel, are my servant.
I have made you, you are my servant;
Israel, I will not forget you.
Isaiah 44:21

3 He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
Isaiah 49:3

Careful reading of Isaiah 52-53 in context leads me to conclude that once again Matthew’s Old Testament interpretation is erroneous. The fact that Isaiah had previously identified Israel as the servant seems to me to solidify this position.

The gospels present the reader with difficulties beyond simple differences of technical detail. Was Jesus open and direct about his divinity as demonstrated by the “I am” statements found in John? Or, was Jesus discreet according the Messianic Secret motif of Mark? Was Jesus equal to God (John 10:30), or not (Mark 10:18)? Did Jesus have a one year ministry as the synoptics depict, or was it an approximately three year ministry depicted in John? How often was Jesus in Jerusalem? The answer depends on whether you read the synoptics or John. One of the few events that John shares in common with the synoptic gospels is that of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It is impossible to assemble a thorough and non-contradictory account of the death and resurrection if no details from any of the gospels are excluded. I won’t go into all of the discrepancies, but one very plain problem is the day of the crucifixion. The synoptics clearly have Jesus crucified after Passover, but John places the crucifixion before Passover. Another obvious problem is the mockery of Jesus by the thieves crucified with him. Luke deviates from the rest of the gospel authors in his account of the one thief who defends Jesus and is repentant. Even more problematic is the differences between the gospels surrounding the empty tomb discovery. There is no consensus among the gospel authors as to who found the empty tomb or what they did upon finding the tomb. Mark claims that the women tell no one about the tomb; Matthew says that they ran immediately to tell the disciples. John goes as far as to have Jesus appear to Mary at the tomb (only after she had brought Peter and the disciple Jesus loved to see the tomb).

The acknowledgement of the differences of accounts among the gospels is not controversial in itself. What is considered controversial are the conclusions drawn about what the variances imply. Modern apologists insinuate that the gospels differ in accounts because, quite simply, they were written by different men with different personalities and views. I held this belief for a while, but this position now causes a problem for me. The idea that various accounts are expected and normal is an attempt to explain the records of the gospel story in completely naturalistic terms. The Bible cannot be given the status as the divinely inspired inerrant word of God but simultaneously be completely excused for human error and discrepancy. The idea that God would have revealed himself to mankind but allowed the record of his revelation to become so littered and problematic is absurd. I think there are so many differences of account because none of the authors foresaw their gospels being assembled into a collective set of writings (the New Testament). Each took his own liberties in recording the story and promoted his own theological agenda aimed at his intended audience. I also see the authorship dates as significant because they reflect an evolving view of Jesus’ divinity in the developing early church.

Alongside the differences among the gospels, the New Testament also contains differences of teaching between the 27 books contained within. Common church doctrine is just as much, if not more so, shaped by Pauline theology as the teachings of Jesus (there is debate about the possibility of pseudepigrapha among the epistles, and all Bible books for that matter, but that is another essay entirely). Take Paul’s position on the law:

2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. — Galatians 5:2-6

Contrast the above passage with Jesus’ words according to Matthew:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 5:17-20

Try as I might, I am unable to contrive a context in which these two given passages are not contradictory. They present opposing ideas, plain and simple. For another example, consider the words of Paul in Ephesians:

8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. — Ephesians 2:9-10

Now, compare that with the following:

24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. — James 2:24

Some read these two passages and see no contradiction, and even believe they complement one another. I disagree. Even though Paul commends and even necessitates good works throughout his writings, he is still in disagreement with James on the role of good works in obtaining righteousness. There are more issues that could be discussed, but I will neglect them for the purpose of conserving time. I have expounded upon enough of what I find problematic in order to clarify my position.

Misc Contradictions

In this section I will provide a few instances of what I consider to be plain and direct contradictions in the Bible. They are as follows (I will only be giving the citations):
How many of each clean beast did God command Noah to take on the ark?

  • 7 – Genesis 7:2
  • 2 – Genesis 7:8-9

How many children did Michal, Saul’s daughter, have?

  • None – 2 Samuel 6:23
  • 5 – 2 Samuel 21:8

Are children to be punished for their parents’ sins?

  • Yes – Exodus 20:5
  • No – Ezekiel 18:19-20

Does God repent (or change his mind, as the NIV translates it)?

  • No – 1 Samuel 15:29
  • Yes – Exodus 32:14

Did Paul’s companions hear a voice?

  • Yes – Acts 9:7
  • No – Acts 22:9 * It is worth noting that the KJV presents a direct contradiction here, but the NIV cleverly alleviates it

Is God a god of war or peace?

  • War – Exodus 15:3
  • Peace – Romans 15:33

Was Jesus of the seed of David?

  • Yes – Romans 1:3, 2 Timothy 2:8
  • No – Mark 12:35-37

There are more occurrences of contradictions where different books of the Bible recount the same events, but with mutually exclusive details (such as the number of men killed in battles, number of Jews returning from exile, etc). However, I feel that I have mentioned enough of my difficulties with scripture to suffice. I am also honest enough to admit that there are vast scholarly responses to the issues I have mentioned, as well as the ones I have not mentioned. Simply searching the internet for Christian apologetic literature will return an entire library of books and essays on the subject of harmonizing scripture. One of the most easily available and well organized sets of responses to biblical criticism can be found at www.apologeticspress.org. Their various contributors attempt to reconcile all of the contradictions I have mentioned. I don’t think they address the issue of Old Testament genocide, but I may be wrong. In my opinion, most of their resolutions (along with all apologist responses I have encountered) stand on circular reasoning and allowance for human error in the process of copying and translating scripture. Again, I object to rationalizations that defend scriptural integrity on the assumption that human error is understandable and inevitable. Either the Bible was divinely written and protected during transmission, or it wasn’t. Naturalistic explanations cannot be employed to account for blatant scriptural errors while absurd and unreasonable doctrines are defended on the basis of scripture’s divine authority.

I should comment at this point that some will accuse me of complete failure to grasp the concept of biblical exegesis. My assessment of exegesis is that there are no clear cut standards by which the term can be defined. From my perspective, biblical exegesis is simply the method of reading into scripture one’s own theological presuppositions. I contend that biblical exegesis is totally disregarded when Old Testament “messianic prophecy” is interpreted to have foretold Jesus. The claims of exegetical examination have led to a myriad of differing fundamental doctrines, all asserting authority based on scripture.

Part V: Development of the Christian Church

If one were to ask a believer how the gospel of Jesus spread from the first century until the present day, I suspect far too many would be unaware of one monumental fact. The fact often ignored or unknown is that Christianity suddenly gained state support in the fourth century. Formerly a pagan, the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the year 312. Supposedly Constantine converted due to a vision he received from Christ that he believed to have given him victory in a battle. This event proved to be a monumental turning point in the development of the church. It is true that Christianity had suffered sporadic periods of persecution from the time of Nero until Constantine’s conversion. As is often observed, the persecuted readily became the persecutor once the tables were turned. The idea that the earlier church was monolithic is simple wishful thinking. Doctrines and beliefs among the church were as various as they are in modern Christian denominations. The Christian church began to persecute not only other religions, but “heresies” within the church. The canon and doctrines agreed upon at the Council of Nicea (325 AD) were solidified by force.

Christianity gained significant momentum from Constantine’s conversion. The following edicts of the Roman emperor Theodosius launched Christianity into totalitarianism. In 380 AD, Theodosius declared Catholic Christianity the official religion of Rome. Subsequently, he declared it the only legal religion in 391. What followed was a period of persecution and vandalism inflicted upon the pagans and philosophers. Pagan temples were destroyed and looted. Philosophical and scientific works were burned. Most of the pagans were forcibly converted to Christianity, some were killed. Christianity’s rise to power was the spark that launched western civilization into the dark ages. What followed were centuries of tyranny, oppression, and murder. This period was characterized by events like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the violent conquer of nearly all of Europe in the name of God. Many were tortured and suffered gruesome executions for standing against the tyranny of the pious theocracy. I am aware that I have only discussed the evils staining church history. There were undoubtedly honest heartfelt Christians during the centuries of tyranny, but the point I want to make is that the powerful leaders of the church were the ones responsible for establishing doctrine and canon. The winners wrote the history books, so to speak. I cannot honestly believe that God revealed himself through Christianity, but allowed it to come to prominence through slaughter, pillaging, and oppression.

At this point I expect that my Protestant readers will probably interject. They will likely contend that the Roman church was indeed corrupt and that God re-established the true church through the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. I used to hold this position myself. Now I see some quite damning logical fallacies in the assertion. First, I find it inconceivable that God would have allowed the true church to vanish from human history with the Roman corruption of the fourth century and then rebirth it in the 16th century. I also find cause for question in the character of Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation. Most readers will probably have some degree of familiarity with Luther’s rebellion against the teachings of the Catholic Church and the papacy. While I do agree with Luther’s condemnation of some of the ridiculous workings of medieval Catholicism (like the sale of indulgences), I have sincere doubts that he was under divine guidance. Many people are completely unaware that Luther was an incredibly vocal anti-Semite. Consider this excerpt from one of his writings:
What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:

First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians. For whatever we tolerated in the past unknowingly and I myself was unaware of it will be pardoned by God. But if we, now that we are informed, were to protect and shield such a house for the Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about, blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us (as was heard above), it would be the same as if we were doing all this and even worse ourselves, as we very well know.

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them. (remainder omitted)

Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. For they have justly forfeited the right to such an office by holding the poor Jews captive with the saying of Moses (Deuteronomy 17 [:10 ff.]) in which he commands them to obey their teachers on penalty of death, although Moses clearly adds: "what they teach you in accord with the law of the Lord." Those villains ignore that. They wantonly employ the poor people's obedience contrary to the law of the Lord and infuse them with this poison, cursing, and blasphemy. In the same way the pope also held us captive with the declaration in Matthew 16 {:18], "You are Peter," etc, inducing us to believe all the lies and deceptions that issued from his devilish mind. He did not teach in accord with the word of God, and therefore he forfeited the right to teach.

Fifth, I advise that safe conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like. Let they stay at home. (...remainder omitted).

Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. The reason for such a measure is that, as said above, they have no other means of earning a livelihood than usury, and by it they have stolen and robbed from us all they possess. Such money should now be used in no other way than the following: Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed one hundred, two hundred, or three hundred florins, as personal circumstances may suggest. With this he could set himself up in some occupation for the support of his poor wife and children, and the maintenance of the old or feeble. For such evil gains are cursed if they are not put to use with God's blessing in a good and worthy cause.
Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen 3[:19]}. For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants

— Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies

I daresay that if Martin Luther had gotten his wishes the holocaust would likely have occurred a few centuries early. This may seem like an ad hominem attack, but I have brought it up to make a point. I find it absurd to believe that Martin Luther could have been led by God to spark the Reformation, but was only somewhat misguided when writing the above quoted passage. I see just as much wrong in his words on the Jews as I do in the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Part VI: General Assessment of Christianity

I would like to give a brief summary of my personal overview of Christianity. As is my belief for all the major religions, I believe that the Judeo/Christian religion developed by natural means over a long period of time. The Bible itself makes it clear to me that Judaism evolved over time, even before Christianity was formed. The New Testament survey course I took referred to the Bible as God’s progressive self revelation to man. I disagree. It appears to me that the Bible is man’s continually evolving method for trying to explain the world around him and for trying to define God. I also think it’s incredibly clear that a variety of opinions and traditions have been included in the Bible. Careful reading of Genesis chapters one and two makes it obvious that two separate creation myths were adopted into the Torah. Progressively changing ideas are present throughout the entire Bible, as will be briefly discussed.

Taking a fundamentalist Christian view of the Bible required me to conclude that eschatological beliefs should have been solidified from the very beginning. They are not. In fact, much of the Old Testament makes no mention of any punishment or reward in the afterlife. Not until post exilic Jewish writings do beliefs in any afterlife at all begin to appear. This should not be too puzzling. The Jewish exile was ended by the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 583 BC. Cyrus the Great was a Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism held views that included reward and punishment in the afterlife and the conflict between good and evil (with dueling supernatural entities responsible for both). Obviously the Jews felt a great sense of gratitude toward Cyrus; he is commended and highly revered in the Old Testament. It should come as no surprise that the Jews would have subsequently been open to Zoroastrian influence. This influence led to the split between the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees seem to have adopted elements of Zoroastrian influence, while the Sadducees did not. The fact that definitive eschatological teaching is absent from pre-exilic Judaism causes me to consider two possibilities. The first would be that Heaven and Hell were always part of the deal but God simply sprung that detail on the world further on down the line. The second option would be that ideas about Heaven and Hell were progressively developed by human imagination. The latter seems to me to be almost irrefutable.
The last book of the Old Testament is presumed to have been written shortly after the end of the exile, somewhere in the ball park of 400 BC. The lapse of time between the Old and New Testament is known as the intertestamental period. During the intertestamental period, Alexander the Great conquered Palestine (330’s BC). Inhabitants of the region were exposed to Hellenistic culture, followed by Roman culture (63 BC). Foreign rule in Palestine bred tension that manifested through events like the Maccabean revolts. Such unrest heightened the expectation of a coming Messiah (another Zoroastrian concept that found acceptance among Judaism). Coincidentally enough, this historical period birthed a new major religion. Christianity entered the scene. Christianity was very likely the inevitable result of the time period in which it was conceived. The Jesus story portrays a near perfect example of the literary mythic hero archetype and bears striking similarities with legends of pre-existing pagan god men and saviors such as Romulus, Mithras, Dionysus, Hercules, Krishna, Osiris, and the Buddha. Similarities between Jesus and the aforementioned pagan characters are met with a broad spectrum of acceptance. Some insist that the pagan mythologies differ from Jesus to such a degree that any similarity is wholly refuted. Others go as far as to claim that Jesus is a direct carbon copy of the pre-existing mythologies. My examination into the matter, with consideration given to the cultural assimilation characterizing Hellenization, leads me to settle somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. While it is true that the pagan mythologies are not identical to the records of Jesus, certain recurring themes and events were clearly incorporated into the stories about his life. Human fingerprints mark the pages of the New Testament to such an extent that I am unable to find any true divine inspiration.

Part VII: What do I believe?

Encountering many of the issues and difficulties this essay has discussed did not initially cause me to lose faith. For quite a while I was able to dismiss my internal conflicts by employing faith and accepting my inadequacies in ascertaining divine matters. In the midst of contemplating all of the problems within my religion, I found myself more and more dissatisfied with faith based acceptance. I finally drew the conclusion that I had no choice but to examine my beliefs without the pre-supposition that they contained any theological truths. I suspect that some will identify this decision as the point at which I erred. I wholeheartedly disagree. Let me clarify why I do not feel that I made a mistake by taking this approach. According to fundamentalist Christian views, many followers of religions such as Judaism and Islam are completely capable of spending their entire lives under the delusion they are genuinely following God’s will. Therefore, by definition God allows people to read their holy books and be entirely deceived by the notion that they are serving his will. It seems that no religion is capable of acknowledging that this accusation can be employed by any religion as a response to rival faiths. By what criterion does Christianity exclude itself from the possibility that it is among the deceived? There are no positive proofs in order to affirm Christianity (or any religion for that matter) is exempt from possible deception. For those who would quote the Bible as a proof, I would respond that they have missed the core principle of the question. Furthermore, I believe that if the reader has persisted this far it is already quite clear that I do not accept the validity of the Bible in the first place. Some will likely appeal to subjective personal experience as valid confirmation of the truth of their belief system. In other words, “you just know that you know”. In my early stages of doubt, I found refuge in this idea as well. However, subjective personal experience is rendered incredibly weak because it is common to all beliefs! Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, and Christians all have personal experiences that to them confirm their beliefs and hopes. To further complicate the manner, even if one somehow accepts Christianity as the valid religion the matter will not have been completely resolved. Now the decision must be made as to which form of Christianity should be followed. Every faction of Christianity that has resulted from all of the schisms and reformations affirms their conflicting doctrine based on scripture. Everybody cannot be right. In Matthew 7:22 Jesus supposedly made it clear that many would spend their lives in assumed service to him (with miracles as evidence) only to find out that they were wrong. So, once again I had to wonder what element of my own personal experiences as a particular flavor of Christian could be taken as proof of the validity of my beliefs. I am convinced that there were no valid proofs.

I assume some may plead with me with arguments that resemble “Jake, you are simply getting far too caught up on religion. Religion is not important; what matters is a personal relationship with Jesus”. I formerly stood on arguments based on this line of reasoning. The idea is based on modern reinterpretation of Christianity and is not theologically founded. Even so, acceptance that God manifested himself in the form of a man and gave instructions and guidelines for life is religion. I think it is clear by now that I do not believe in this revelation anyway. I know I will be criticized for not having faith. Again I must point out that followers of all religions have faith. At this point in my life, I am a bit uncertain about my feelings on the importance or benefit of faith. It may be true that faith sometimes gives the struggling a spark of hope that fuels their will to live when they feel like ending it all. Faith may be the instrument that helps people find an escape from substance addiction. Faith may be a source of comfort when loved ones pass away. But faith left unchecked can prove to do more harm than good. Faith allows people to be cheated by charlatans like Benny Hinn. Faith justified the torturous execution of heretics whose only crime was questioning established doctrine. The idea was that it was a reasonable trade off to burn one person alive in order to keep him/her from leading others into eternal damnation. Even today, for reasons of faith men strap bombs to themselves and crash planes into buildings full of innocent victims. The realization that faith can easily morph into credulity convinces me that faith should never be allowed to surpass reason.

My readers are probably curious about what I do believe now, since I have thus far only professed what I do not believe. When I first lost faith in Christianity, I initially adopted some form of what I can only characterize as a cross between deism and very liberal theism. My loss of faith in a literal interpretation of Christianity brought me to the conclusion that no one particular religion is true, but that all were an attempt to understand God. I felt that actions and intent, not belief, were what brought a person to God. While I did not believe in religion at all, I was completely convinced of God’s existence. Eventually I found cause to question even this belief. Cognitive dissonance slowly eroded my confidence in my belief regarding the supernatural. I realized I had no basis on which my beliefs could be founded. My only system for defining God was biblically based. Once I had toppled that house of cards I had to reexamine the world around me. I began to understand that many of the problems I saw in the world could no longer be resolved by the logic I used to employ. This was the point at which my certainty of God’s existence started to dwindle.

The problem of evil in the world deals the most damage to the notion of an omnipotent or omnibenevolent personal god. Once I departed from my biblical beliefs, I found that the purported arguments for explaining the simultaneous existence of evil and an omnipotent god did not make sense. Most Christians assert that evil exists because God gave man free will. My problem with this line of reasoning is that if God is indeed omnipotent then our capacity for evil must have been intentionally created by him. If one somehow blames the devil for evil in the world, I must point out that God apparently created the devil as well. Now I must posit another question. What does this implicate about the doctrine that God punishes people for eternity in Hell? Why would an intrinsic part of human nature endowed upon us by God be the basis for our separation from him and eternal torture? If the reader can answer this question in a manner they find logically consistent, then I tip my hat and would love to be enlightened. Personally, I find the doctrine to be nonsense that was introduced into religion in order to further manipulate human credulity and fear. I find it hard to ignore that behavior resembling both altruism and evil is observable in the animal kingdom as well. I see a direct correlation between animal intelligence and the appearance of morality. One only needs to observe the behavioral differences between reptiles and mammals in order to see a simplified example of this correlation. It becomes even more supported when primate behavior is studied. This inclines me to think that all of what differentiates humans from the animal kingdom may be a direct result of our incredibly superior intellect, not necessarily the design of a personal creator god.

My difficulty with the problem of evil is matched by my view of the suffering in the world around me. I used to take comfort in Jesus’ words about trusting in God to provide my needs because he provides for even the sparrows, and humans are much more valuable to him. It is fairly easy to take comfort in such teachings in America, a highly prosperous nation. But this is such a narrow world view. An estimated 9 million children under the age of 5 years old die each year. Roughly 5 million of these deaths are the direct result of starvation alone. Now I must ask myself, is it really likely that all of the times that I believed God answered prayers and intervened in my life were real? Was it that my prayers of finding a job made it through, but the cries of children dying of starvation went unheard? I am not megalomaniacal enough to believe I hold such a level of importance. My fortune (along with the many fortunate enough to have been born into countries of opportunity) and the misfortune of others seem irreconcilable with the existence of a god who intervenes in and cares about the lives of humans. However, it does seem perfectly reasonable that such suffering would exist in an unbiased world governed by random chance and chaos.

By now the reader will likely have been able to predict that I am an agnostic. I make no positive statement either for or against the existence of a higher power. The universe is highly complex and it seems incomprehensible that all life could have come about by blind chance. It very well may be that a god exists as first cause, but this solution is in no way the most simple and clear explanation. There would still be no explanation for the origin of God. Believers assert that God exists outside of time and therefore requires no beginning. I only ask that if God is excused from the necessity of a first cause, why is it impossible that the natural world could exist without a first cause? To put it in another perspective, consider that space is infinite. The concept is baffling and seems impossible. But try to consider the opposite case; what if space had an end? That would be even more problematic because one could simply wonder what exists just beyond the border of space.

There will probably be several accusations hurled in order for people to explain how and why I came to an agnostic state. I suspect some will accuse me of coming to this conclusion simply because I do not want to believe that there is a god to whom I am accountable. If the reader takes this position then I am saddened by his/her opinion of both my intelligence and my moral center. Let me first explain why the assessment of my intellect would be offensive. I am fully aware that my beliefs (as well as anyone else’s) have absolutely no bearing on reality. I am smart enough to know that God either exists or doesn’t completely independently of my beliefs. I would gain nothing by simply “pretending” to be an agnostic. I came to this point because I genuinely feel it is where the evidence has guided me. Now I would like to comment on the moral implications. My loss of faith in no way prompted me to develop a hedonistic lifestyle or to neglect moral responsibility. I would imply that the accuser is likely confusing morality with religiosity. Although the two terms do have some common intersections, they are by no means synonymous. Morality should be determined by the results and consequences of an action, not simply because certain behaviors have been prescribed or prohibited in sacred books. I will admit that some restrictions on my lifestyle were slightly relieved when I left Christianity. Although I drank in very small quantities as a Christian, which I still believe is entirely biblically justified, I still believed that getting drunk was sinful. It’s funny how I had no calibrated point of reference by which I believed God defined drunk. Now I hold the position that it is my responsibility to make sensible and safe decisions (considering long term health effects and refusing to drink and drive) about alcohol consumption, but I don’t believe some god is standing over me counting my drinks to give me a bad mark if I exceed some quota. I should also mention that I know many sincere heartfelt Christians that have no problem whatsoever with having an enjoyable drinking session from time to time. My belief system is based on issues of much more magnitude than the technicalities of alcohol consumption. I am simply giving an example of the degree of the methods for determining how and why behaviors should be identified as immoral. If I genuinely just wanted to feel as if I was free to indulge in such behavior I would have simply found ways to justify the behavior. I would not have negated my entire belief system. Furthermore, I take some offense at the implication that I question a book condoning genocide, slavery, and misogyny simply because I want to reject morality. I simply cannot understand how questioning the Bible could be inherently immoral, while acceptance of the atrocities within is the definition of morality.

I am of the opinion that beliefs are not really a matter of choice. If the reader disagrees, then I would like to give an example. Is it possible for someone to decide that they believe that the world is flat? I am almost certain that the answer will be a unanimous “no”. We know beyond any doubt that the earth is not flat, therefore it is not possible to simply adopt the belief. If the reader is a devout believer, then I ask if it is possible for him/her to simply decide that God is not real? I expect that the answer would be “No, because I know better”. I feel the same way with regard to holding a positive belief in God, specifically the god presented in the Bible. There appears to be far too much evidence to enforce doubt. If I simply professed belief, I could not make my profession true by wishful thinking. In case the reader was considering proposing Pascal’s Wager, I hope this paragraph has made it clear that I believe that argument is rendered totally invalid. Furthermore, I can in no way conceive that belief takes precedence over action. I believe this doctrine to be not only incorrect, but pernicious.

Conclusion

The majority of this essay seems to be somewhat negative and cynical in tone. I would like to end on a bit more enjoyable note. I want to assure the reader, especially if you are someone that knows me very closely, that I am still exactly the same person I have always been. The only difference is my beliefs. Making an enemy of religion is not my intent. I simply want to explain why I left it. Life has brought me into fellowship with some absolutely wonderful people, both religious and secular. Please do not assume that the loss of faith has given me a cynical perspective on life. I do not feel that there is no meaning to life. If there is no god and no objective meaning to life, I still believe that we can find and appreciate the wonderful aspects of living on our own. Life is full of awe and I am captivated by the wonder of the human experience. I simply do not necessarily associate the numinous with the supernatural. Transcendence abounds our world through love, family, friendship, the arts, and beauty. Life does contain tragedy and suffering, but we can all take joy in doing everything we can to alleviate the suffering of others. We should do what is right simply because we can, not for hope of future reward. I look forward to growing and learning more about the world around me and the cultures and beliefs that preceded our modern society. Some might interpret my critique of faith as arrogant, but let me assure the reader that nothing is more humbling than coming to the realization that you have been wrong for your entire life. But I feel this is a positive change. Life is certainly less marvelous and fascinating when one presupposes that questions regarding the divine have already been answered for them. If I am wrong about the nature and existence of God, it will not be for lack of searching. I thank you for reading and I apologize for the length of this writing. I actually had to neglect a few topics I had originally intended to discuss for the sake of condensing the essay. Though I tried to keep my thoughts as structured as possible, I know I have chased rabbit trails at times and my writing has been a bit unorganized. My skills of rhetoric and prose are not impressive by any means, so I appreciate the reader toughing it out in order to read this essay in its entirety. Feedback is welcome and I am open to discussion with anyone who so desires. I would like to close with some quotes I find insightful.

“Myth is what we call other people’s religion.”
-Joseph Campbell

“Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”
-Thomas Paine

“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
-Thomas Paine

“Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.”
-Thomas Jefferson

“It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
-Mark Twain

“My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.”
-Albert Einstein

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
-Galileo

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”
-Voltaire


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