10/31/2014 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Ben Love ~
I never thought I’d be writing an essay like this one. It never even occurred to me that such a thing could ever be possible. Nevertheless, here I sit, typing it, hoping to formulate my thoughts into a cohesive argument to describe how a man who once would have gladly laid down his life for Jesus Christ became an implacable atheist. Yes, I was a Christian. And I wasn’t one of those moderately involved ones either; I was hardcore. I worked at several different churches and even help start a few. I went on mission trips. I was instrumental developing Christian communities on several campuses all over St. Louis, Missouri. I wrote over 100 worship songs, many of which are still being used in churches across America. I was one of those guys that people came to whenever they needed their faith boosted, when they needed someone to talk to who would set them on the strong path again. I even wrote and published a book on Christian theology (suggesting a new route which, I thought at the time, would help people keep the message of Jesus even they wanted nothing more to do with his church). And behind closed doors, I was just as devout. I went out of my way to not just talk the talk but to walk the walk. I spent hours studying the Bible, even researching the original Greek in which the New Testament was written. I fasted. I shunned regular social activities to instead spend time alone “with God,” in prayer, worshipfully meditating on Christian truths. That’s who I used to be.
Then, one day, someone very close to me asked me why I believed what I believed. The immediate answer that came to my mind (though I did not voice it as a reply) was this: “Because this is what I was taught to believe.” Sensing immediately that this was a terrible answer (because the Muslim and the Buddhist and the Zoroastrian are all “taught” their beliefs—this does not make them synonymous with truth), and being the kind of man that I am (an inquisitive, meditative, fierce seeker of truth), I resolved to step back from everything and do my research. This is something I had never really done before. I had philosophical arguments against God, but most believers do, and these arose from the inconsistencies I experienced in my everyday life and not due to the fruits of any serious research.
So, I launched myself into a massive research campaign. I spent hours on the internet, hours at the library, hours at Barnes and Noble. I stayed up late, getting little sleep, pouring over obscure articles, Greek lexicons, books by the experts (Strobel and Craig on the Christian side, Barker and Dawkins on the non-Christian side, among others), and, yes, the New Testament. I wrote questions to myself as my journey unfolded, notated certain problems with this explanation or that. I kept meticulous track of my findings and, as the campaign wore on, began to loosely form a big picture image out of the smaller fragments. This went on for about a year.
I was conscious of the fact that the issue rested on the resurrection of Jesus. If this event is true, any other theological problem can be reconciled through the proper mindset. If it is not true, it becomes the biggest among a long list of other problems that one faces when poised to either choose or reject Christianity. Sometimes, though, in our hearts, we just know something. I knew, for instance, that if the resurrection of Jesus was true, and that God had made that event the sole doorway through which people can either come to him and be saved or miss him and be damned, then he would not, could not, have made verifying this fact, even loosely, a difficult task. In other words, yes, I knew that one ultimately has to accept the resurrection by faith; however, if most of the signposts were pointing to this fact being mere myth or legend, thereby making it very hard for honest inquisitors to come to the correct conclusion, I had to assume that a wise God was not involved. This, to me, would be the same as me telling you that there is an antidote to the poison you just drank, but it is hidden somewhere in a 100-room mansion. Finding it is going to be very hard. And you only have a small amount of time. If I truly wanted you to be healed, I would make sure that the antidote is easy to find, accessible, and verifiable among other tonics you could possibly try drinking instead.
Proceeding from this logic, I expected to be overwhelmed with evidence for the resurrection.
The exact opposite proved to be the case. I was so underwhelmed by the evidence that I am still somewhat puzzled as to why anyone actually believes it.
Having said all that, let me now share my findings:
First, already knowing what the New Testament had to say, I decided to set it aside for the time being and see what else was out there, as corroborating evidence. It turns out that there are no other known documents directly from the time of Jesus that corroborate either his rise from the dead or even his very existence as proposed in the NT. This, to me, was strange, because there were two reporter-historians living in Palestine at this time: Justus of Tiberius (who lived near Nazareth and Capernaum), and Philo of Jerusalem. Neither of these meticulous reporters mentions a single word about Jesus (Justus’s work has been lost but Christians commenting on his work in the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries all express puzzlement over why his accounts contain nothing of Jesus). Philo is particularly important because he lived in Jerusalem at the time Jesus was there. Philo is an interesting character, because he is one of those guys that records every tiny little thing, down to the last detail. So, here is a vigilant reporter who is living in Jerusalem at the time that Jesus has his triumphal entry, his altercation at the Temple, his arrest, his trial, his execution, and his resurrection. This also implies that Philo was around to at least see or hear about some of the miracles Jesus performed in Jerusalem, as well as the rending of the Temple veil, the darkness, the earthquake, the dead people coming out of their graves, and any of the other events purported in the NT story. Not only this, but a reporter like him would have had access to the “500 eye-witnesses” that Paul spoke of. And yet, in all of Philo’s otherwise detail-heavy books, not a single word about Jesus shows up. To me, this was not strong validation for the NT story.
Knowing that Christians often point to Josephus and Tacitus, I decided to study the accounts found therein. Josephus is problematic because his account is written in c. 95 AD. This is much too late to be considered anything other than a “report after the fact.” Josephus was not there in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ life, death, and alleged resurrection. In fact, Josephus was born in 37 AD, at least 4 if not more years after the events in question. This is too late to count—a good 60 years later. This would be like me trying to write a book about what definitively happened on D-Day in WWII. I wasn’t there…most of the soldiers who were are dead now, and those who are still alive witnessed different things at different times—and they’re very old; how accurate is their memory? Either way, my report, even though it is based on eyewitnesses, is still a second-hand hearsay account. Add to that the fact that in 95 AD, based on life expectancy, it is highly unlikely that any of the adults alive at the time Jesus allegedly rose from the dead were still alive when Josephus wrote his account. All of this is secondary to the fact that most scholars are leaning towards the excerpt from Josephus being a dubious later addition. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but the mere possibility that it could be lessened the credibility of the entire account. I therefore felt I had to disregard the Josephus evidence.
As for Tacitus, his account comes from 116 AD (even later than Josephus) and he is merely reporting what Nero did to the Christians and what the Christians themselves believed. He is not corroborating any resurrection evidence. The fact that Christians use the passage from Tacitus to try and validate their claims to me suggested that they were truly desperate for any kind of corroboration (of which this is not).
Christians will also point to Mara Bar-Serapion (circa 70 AD), but he never mentions Jesus by name; we therefore cannot conclusively know to whom he refers. We also have mentions from Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata, and Celsus—but in all these cases the writer is either merely reporting who/what the Christians are, or the writing is too late to count.
I had to conclude that the honest inquisitor really only has the NT to go on when it comes to verifying the claims of Jesus.
This meant I had 4 accounts to examine regarding the resurrection of Jesus (listed below in the order in which they were written):
1. The passage in 1 Corinthians 15
Mark cannot be included because even Christian scholars concede that the resurrection story in Mark is a much later addition. The gospel of Mark originally ended with the women finding only the empty tomb (which is indicative of something mysterious but not conclusive proof of a resurrection). It is interesting, also, that Mark, the first gospel to be written, did not originally include a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.
I was already very familiar with the other gospel accounts. I already knew, for instance, that many of the bigger details of the story found in Matthew, Luke, and John are irreconcilably contradictory. Yes, I know that minor discrepancies add weight to authenticity. But many of these aren’t minor discrepancies. Matthew, Luke, and John (two of which were apparently among Jesus’ original twelve followers) cannot even agree on what day of the week Jesus was killed (I, for instance, will always remember even when I am 90 that the September 11, 2001 attacks occurred on a Tuesday). There is discord between who saw what and when. There is discord regarding what time of the day Jesus died. There is discord between what Jesus’ final words were reported to be (the final words of your Lord and Savior before he dies would be hard to forget, especially when you have other living eyewitnesses to remind you). The accounts show signs of doctoring, of fantastical additions, of forced literary events to reconcile this or that prophecy, and perhaps worst of all, the gospel writers themselves admit that they are writing propaganda to “help you believe.” History is not about believing in something fantastical. History is about the honest reporting of facts, whatever they may be. No other credible historian would be taken seriously if, in his historical books, he wrote, “I have written these things in such a way as to convince you that this is how they really happened.” Even the other historians from that time (Philo, Josephus) do not use such tactics when reporting their histories.
Faith is a dogmatic belief in something when there is no evidence for that belief. If you did have evidence, faith would be meaningless, because what you’d be left with is the observance of a mere fact.I also had to consider the fact that authors of the gospels do not identify themselves. Centuries later, the Christians attributed names to those books that they thought would carry weight (known followers of Jesus and associates of the original apostles would be the ideal choice, which is exactly what happened). I therefore had no way of knowing exactly who wrote these books. What was their motivation? Who did they consult? What other documents were they based on? Were they competent to even know what they were talking about? I had to conclude that the course of my life here in 2012 was too important to me to risk changing it over contradictory written accounts from the first century, the writers of which do not even state their sources or even their identities. Surely God would have been a bit more responsible with his “Word?”
To me, this made the gospel accounts unreliable. I then had to weigh the fact that Christian scholars talk in great lengths about the number of ancient manuscripts we have for the NT. My question was: so what? How does quantity translate to authenticity of truth? There are billions of copes of Harry Potter in the world today. Does this mean that 2,000 years from now, people will be justified to believe that boy named Harry Potter existed and fought a Wizard War in the 1990s?
That left only the passage 1 Corinthians 15, quoted here:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
This is interesting because this passage from Paul is by far the earliest mention of anything regarding a possible resurrection of Jesus. However, this account is possibly the most damning of all. First of all, Paul never actually says there was an empty tomb. He uses the word “buried,” and the Greek word in question is etaphē, which refers to burial in the ground (which is how all crucifixion victims were treated—they were given a mass grave), not a stone sepulcher. When he speaks of Jesus having been raised from the dead, he does NOT use the Greek word for resurrection, which is anástasis, he uses the verb egeiró, which means "to wake up from sleeping." This is the same Greek word used in the story of Jesus calming the raging sea (Remember? He was sleeping in the boat, and his disciples woke [egeiró] him). If Paul means a bodily resurrection (and if God himself was writing through Paul), why not use the word anástasis to convey the clearest, simplest meaning? Also, when Paul speaks of Jesus having “appeared” to people in this passage, the word for “appeared” is ōphthē, which specifically means a spiritual vision. This is the same word Paul uses when describing the vision he sees on the Damascus road. There were other words Paul could have used that would have conveyed a more direct meaning regarding a bodily appearance, but Paul chose to use a word that conveyed an ethereal image rather than a literal image. The only logical reason is because Paul meant something other than what modern Christians think he meant.
What’s also interesting is that scholars have identified the passage of 1 Corinthians 15 as having been a hymn already in use at this time. Songs point more to legend than to fact.
Speaking of legend, I had to conclude once and for all that this story was mostly myth and legendary. Christians will say that not enough time passed to create a myth. In fact, this statement is made constantly. My question: how do they know that? What are they basing that statement on? As others have pointed out, there are people in the US who, as early as the 1950s, believed a spaceship crash-landed at Roswell, NM in 1947. Even by the 1960s this story had taken on mythical, legendary dimensions, with all sorts of purported “eyewitnesses” popping up and saying “I saw this,” “I saw that.” Whatever may or may not have happened in Roswell, 1947, had already achieved legendary status after only about 20 years. This kind of thing actually happens all the time. The more sensational a story, the faster the legend is born. I saw no reason to assume the same could not have happened with Jesus.
I recalled that Christians constantly tout the following statement: “No one else in history ever claimed to be God.” The fact is, tons of people have. All the Pharaohs and Caesars professed to be God or gods. Antiochus Epiphanes said he was God. Father Divine in the 20th century claimed to be God. Mitsuo Matayoshi, who still alive, continues to claim that he is God. Christians will then say that only Jesus was able to back it up with miracles. But in the course my research I found that many of the messianic characters in Palestine during the first century purportedly did miracles. And let us not forget that the evidence for the miracles of Jesus came from the very NT writings that I had already found to be unreliable (and, again, Philo made no mention of them).
All of these things led me to conclude that the Jesus story does not constitute overwhelming evidence.
Do I know for a fact that Jesus did not rise from the dead? No. I wasn’t there, after all. But I can say one thing, after reviewing the evidence, I do not know for a fact that he did. The antedote has not been found, and I have just died of poison. Regarding evidence that can send a man to either heaven or hell, a wise God would have been more responsible.
That left only faith. But why should I put my faith in the Jesus story over some other option? If it’s evidence we are going on, there is much stronger evidence regarding the creation of the Mormon church. That was comparatively recent, and yet it already has over a billion members. Additionally, there are 11 sworn statements by eyewitness who say they saw the golden tablets on which the angel Moroni purportedly wrote the book of Mormon. In a court of law, this evidence would stand up much better than anything from the first century. This is to say nothing of the thousands of credible eyewitnesses that testify to having seen and encountered UFOs. The point is that anyone can put their faith in anything they want. To me, that is dangerous.
So I decided to investigate faith itself. Faith is a dogmatic belief in something when there is no evidence for that belief. If you did have evidence, faith would be meaningless, because what you’d be left with is the observance of a mere fact. You cannot have both faith and evidence. Evidence cancels out faith. No, you must be uncertain about a truth in order to have faith in it. As soon as there is suitable evidence, faith dissolves and you are left with inert data.
Faith, then, must imply that you do not actually know. Here is the problem: a room full of ten believers can have put their faith in ten different things, and each one believes they have sufficient reasons to place their faith in whatever object that they have chosen. Each person is assured in his or her heart that their faith is well-founded, based on solid confirmation (which is usually nothing more than a mere “good feeling” inside about their choice).
Any human being can have faith in anything, and any human being, if he or she wants to, can find suitable reasons for having that faith. Mormons and Christians, who differ drastically in fundamental theologies, can each validate their faith positions with alleged evidence. If there is only one God, would God be as confused as humans apparently are? He must be, for each human from differing religions each believe God or (gods) confirm their faith.
And what does faith really point to outside the individual mind? When you die, your faith dies with you, since your faith is something that is happening within the synapses of your own brain. It has no permanence outside of your individual existence. The Universe existed before you and your faith appeared on the scene, and it will exist when you and your faith have vanished.
But truth is eternal. Truth is what it is regardless who is here to believe it or even recognize it. Put ten different scientists in a room and you might still have some differing conclusions, but you at least have ten people all moving in the same direction, following the evidence where it would lead, observing the measurable facts, and coming to some sort of cohesive understanding. Science has persevered because scientists, by and large, are coming together in unity, usually arriving at the same or at least at close conclusions. And this is exactly what you would expect with truth. If truth is observable and discernable, you would expect differing people all across the board to basically arrive at the same conclusion. But with an untruth you would expect all sorts of crazy and varying conclusions, which is exactly what you have with religious faith.
I decided, therefore, that reason is safer. It is surer. It is worthier of attention because reason leads the way. With faith, our predisposed conceptions of what our faith is already in leads the way, and that is dangerous.
So, at this point I knew two things: 1) the Jesus story was not worth my faith, and 2) faith itself was not worth my consideration. It seemed at this point that I was leaning toward reason and rationality for determining truths.
But I wasn’t quite ready to reject Christianity (after all, it’s hard to leave something you were raised with, something your parents taught you). Knowing, though, that I really had no basis to continue belief in Jesus, I decided, for the benefit of the doubt, to re-examine some of the basic problems I had already noted with Christian theology.
I had always bothered by something, something that just didn’t seem to sit right. According to Christian theology, God created humans, gave them free will, and they in turn choose to sin. Thus, all of humanity ever since has been born into a state of sin and was therefore slated to experience eternal punishment as a result. God, it is said, knew ahead of time that this would be the case, so he planned from the very beginning to send his son Jesus to take care of all that. The obvious problem here is what I call Ultimate Culpability, and it can be explained as follows:
1. If God is all-knowing, then he knew ahead of time that humanity would sin.In spite of this,
2. God decided to go ahead a create humanity anyway.
3. Ultimate Culpability for sin rests with God.
In other words, if God is so bothered by sin, bothered enough in fact to send sinners to hell for eternity even for committing just one single sin, doesn’t that make him the first and ultimate sinner by creating something that could and did sin? He knew we would sin, yes? Then God himself is a sinner. In fact, this would actually make God the only sinner, really.
Christians have never had an adequate explanation for this problem, either pointing to this verse of the Bible or that to reason that God is somehow absolved in this matter, or they instead retreat to the old standby: “God’s ways are higher than our ways, we just cannot understand these truths,” a position that is really nothing more than an admission that a) they would rather believe something that makes no sense than use their minds to find a better solution, and B) there is no answer and they know it. Choosing to answer a mystery with another mystery (i.e. “God did it, I don’t understand it, but his ways are higher than our ways”) answers nothing and is a deliberate refusal to think.
Also, Christian theology teaches that each human being has a choice to make: choose Jesus and you will live in heaven forever; reject Jesus and you burn in hell forever. The problem here is that if God really were God, he would be smart enough to know that humans cannot be trusted to make a wise decision regarding their eternal future. It would be woefully reckless of an intelligent God to give humans (who may experience all kinds of factors in life that could prevent them from making the correct decision) the weighty responsibility of choosing something in this life that could ultimately lead them to everlasting punishment. If Christian theology is correct, then humans are fallen. But if humans are fallen, then they are pre-disposed to make the wrong decision. Besides, there are all kinds of reasons a human might reject Jesus (depression, confusion, honest doubt, culture, or perhaps some representative of Jesus’ church molested them as a child). No God would irresponsibly delegate choices to humans when their eternal future is at stake. I mean, would you trust humans to decide your eternal fate?
Then I had to deal with the irreconcilable problem of evil. Better writers have already expounded on this better than I could. Suffice it to say that Christianity’s answer to why evil is exists in a world created by a perfect God is woefully insufficient.
This prompted me to examine the character of the biblical God. Now that I was operating less out of faith and more out of reason, I felt I could come to this examination more unbiased than I had before. And what I found was just awful. If there is a God (and I do not believe there is), then let us hope he/she/it is nothing at all like the God described in the Christian Bible. This character is horrifyingly evil. He sanctions the genocide of entire nations (just a few short decades after allegedly telling his people “thou shalt not kill”). He endorses the killing of innocent women and children. He destroys entire cities for sinfulness (even though he apparently knew ahead of time that he had already chosen his “son” to atone for their sins). He strikes people dead for accidentally touching his favorite golden box. He opens the ground to swallow up the very people he apparently chose to be his own. He asks a man to kill his son just to demonstrate his faith. He allows his messenger to be eaten by a whale when that messenger is reluctant to carry out his commands. He strikes dead two people who apparently lied about their income, just weeks after allegedly dying in the form of Jesus on the cross to atone for those very sins. He creates certain people with the express intention that they will live for eternity in hell, while creating others who will live for eternity with him (the ultimate form of favoritism). He creates humanity, then, even while he already knows ahead of time that he will save humanity from their sins through the death of his son, decides to kill all of humanity anyway, sending a global flood upon the Earth. In addition, he is racist, homophobic, infanticidal, misogynistic, and petty. Seriously, if God created the Universe, why in the world is he concerned with the petty affairs of one nation trying to enter some piece of land on this planet, concerned enough to have the indigenous people of that land (children included) slaughtered?
And if you think that Jesus painted a different picture of God, thereby cancelling out the apparent misdeeds of his Old Testament father, think again. Jesus (in Matthew 5) essentially affirms his approval of what we now know of as the Old Testament. And there was no question that when Jesus spoke of his “Father,” he spoke of the God described in the Old Testament.
Is this the kind of God you want to believe in? Is this the kind of God you want to worship?
At this point, I was absolutely sure that I did not believe in the biblical God or his alleged son, Jesus. I was not actually an atheist yet, but I finally, once and for all, rejected Christianity. Atheism was not far in following, however, when I deduced that if there was no good evidence for the God of Christianity, then there was likely no evidence for any of the gods humans believe in.
I eventually rejected any belief in theism. There were many reasons for this, but I will share just one: the illogic of God’s existence: If I were to say that everything that exists shows design, and therefore must have a designer, then what do I do with the designer? The designer also shows design. Does the designer have a designer? Where does it end? Isn’t it a contradiction to say that every complex thing (the Universe) must have a designer BUT also not every complex thing (God) must have a designer? Which is it? IF God designed the Universe, then who designed God? If this equation is correct [complexity + existence = a designer], then what do you with God? Because if he exists, he is also complex. Did he therefore design himself? I think not. If all things that exist must have a beginning, then either God does too or he doesn’t exist at all
And just to be clear, since God does show design, we must infer there was a designer. And do you know who it was? You. Me. The human mind. We are the designer. We created “God,” to explain our existence (even though, as I have just demonstrated, this actually explains nothing).
I finally came to a place of rest. The struggle was over, once and for all. I am, from this moment on, and forever, an atheist. I arrived at this conclusion through reason and rational, critical thinking. This is not the result of anger at God or dysfunctional issues. It is merely the default position that is left when one rationally eliminates all the alleged “evidence,” of which there is none that bears any weight. No, there is no god. There is just the Universe. And like the stars, that finally wink out of existence when their fuel is spent, so too will you and I cease to be when our bodies die. And that is perfectly okay. Yes, it’s a bit frightening, but it sure is liberating too, to know that this isn’t simply some testing ground for some alleged future existence. This is now. This is all there is. You are completely and utterly alone in this Universe, save for those other humans whom you know and love. So live well. Enjoy yourself. Be free. Be happy. Let go. It’s okay. There simply is no god. There never was. It’s time to move on, at least for me it is.
Finally, perhaps we should define atheism? First, what it is not is an absolute belief that no god-like entity exists (a creator, for example). No one could possibly know for sure what is out there and what is not. No atheist would ever claim to have the final word on what might be out there. What an atheist IS, however, is someone who has examined all the “gods” that humans currently believe in and finds the evidence for those gods incomplete, insufficient, incoherent, or just down right ridiculous. Be it Zeus, Yahweh, Thor, Krishna, Brahma, Allah, Mithra, Ra, or any other human manifestation of “god,” these the atheist finds wanting. Is there a creator somewhere out there? There could be. But until he makes himself finitely known to us, it amounts to the same thing as assuming nothing is there. IF God exists, then it is on him to contact us, we do not need to look for him. My personal view is that, no, nothing is out there and nothing ever was out there, but I don’t know that for a certainty, any more than the theist knows for a certainty that God is out there. It really comes down to one question: faith or reason? Millions of people from differing religions have faith and come to all kinds of bizarre and varying conclusions. This is not a strong validation for the merits of faith. Reason, on the other hand, tends to lead people from all different cultures in the same direction, which is strong validation for its reliability. To the atheist, until such time as reason can reasonably validate the existence of a god, the default position must be that none exists, especially not the ones humans currently believe in.
The atheist is not evil. He craves the truth. He’s just brave enough to admit that he doesn’t have the final word on it. No one does.
Many Christians often say to me that it takes just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to believe in a god. My response is this: do they have any idea what the definition of faith is? Once again, let us observe that faith is the belief in something for which there is no evidence. If I were to say that “the evidence for God’s existence is zero and yet I still choose to believe in God,” then yes, I am exercising faith. If, on the other hand, I were to say that, “The evidence of God’s existence is zero and I therefore cannot rationalize a continued belief in God,” where exactly does faith come into play? It doesn’t. Faith is a belief in the face of no evidence (because, again, if you had evidence, it wouldn’t be faith, it would be a fact). A disbelief in the face of no evidence is the exact opposite of faith! Light and darkness cannot coexist, and neither can faith and disbelief. You either have one or you have the other. You cannot have both. The issue is about evidence. No evidence plus belief equals faith. No evidence plus no belief equals no faith. So let us hear no more about how an atheist is exercising just as much faith as a theist. That’s like saying it takes just as much energy to be a rock as it does to be a living body. One has full energy; the other has none. The believer has faith. The nonbeliever has none.
And, to make a final statement: the truth is that as a believing Christian I was miserable. As an atheist, I have been ridiculously happy.