A letter to Bart Ehrman
I've lived the last four years as a Christian, with Christ as my hope and the Scriptures my guide. They have been the source of all hope, joy, and meaning in my life. They have instructed my thoughts and attitudes. My faith has made me the person I am today. I listened to your interview on NPR on Wednesday morning with great interest, and a degree of distress. I am a person devoted to truth. I can think of no fate worse than to learn I've based my entire life on a lie; and that appeared to be just what you were trying to tell me.
You are a textual scholar. I am not; but am also not entirely ignorant of Biblical textual criticism. The rudiments of it were explained to me two decades ago in Bible college (back when, much like your younger self I was a professing fundamentalist who'd had a teenage so-called "born again" experience and wanted to become a Bible scholar). And I read on the subject here and there even now. So I listened to hear what new information you might be bringing to the table. I was rather surprised to hear nothing new at all, just the same theories put forth in the books I still have on my shelves from 20 plus years ago, albeit with a spin - that the different gospel writers presented different religions and had entirely different views of who this Jesus really was. (I found especially interesting your remarks about John, which seemed to imply - correct me if I misunderstood - he had developed gnostic tendencies which led him to regard Jesus as God rather than man. I find this an odd twist as it was John who wrote epistles specifically aimed at combating the gnosticism which was creeping into the church.) You pointed out many "discrepancies" in the gospel accounts. As the owner of at least two volumes dedicated to comparison of the gospel records, none of that was new to me either. People have been discussing these things for generations. I, for one, would be more troubled if all the accounts, though written in different places and times by different men, were exactly the same, but that's a discussion for a different day.
So, by pointing out how different the four gospels are, in spite of their similarities, you set about attempting to discredit the message entirely. You also made mention of other "gospels" which are not included in the canon of Scripture. You clearly feel the very existence of these is another reason to discredit Scripture, and the Christian faith. Yet these are nothing new either. They are not obscure. They've not been kept secret or hidden. The church has co-existed with these writings for millenia. I have copies of most of them on my own shelves. They are still in print, and though interesting, are still not viewed by Christians as Scripture. The church has by-and-large rejected them as Scripture all along, and not without reason. My own Christianity has co-existed with these "contradictions" all this time. I just kept listening, and thinking....what are you doing? There's nothing new here. What is this all about? Why all this heat? Why the passion?
Apparently you felt a need to explain that too, or was it a question from the interviewer that drew you out? I don't recall. But you finally gave a bit of your testimony. You had been a "fundamentalist" originally, but your studies in Greek and textual criticism eventually led to this "liberal" (your word) view of Scripture which you now espouse. In fact you held this position for quite some time while still professing to be a Christian. I began to wonder then, as you relayed your experience, what brought about this big change, this "loss of faith". You denied that your low view of Scripture had anything to do with why you are now a professing agnostic (though I would suggest that your degree of conviction, passion, and dogma are more in keeping with an atheist's). No, it wasn't that..... it was because of the problem of suffering in the world that you stopped believing the Bible. Well, this is certainly nothing new either. How can any human being escape the question, "If God is a God of love then why is there suffering in the world?" Who in his right mind, has not wondered? And the Bible does not fail to address it. It is the entire theme of that ancient book, Job. Suffering is indeed at the very heart of the gospel message itself. The God of the Bible did not skirt the issue. He took it upon Himself, quite literally, to do something about it. No, it is not that the Bible does not have an answer for this difficult question. It is that you do not like the answers it gives.
So, the real heart of your unbelief, the passion which drives it, lies in that natural distaste for the things of Scripture which every one of us is born with. It's nothing new. It's as old as the hills - that innate hatred ever on the lookout for excuses to doubt the veracity of God's Word. "You don't have to believe that because...." or "Did God actually say...?" I believe this is why you approach the witness Scripture with the vengeance of a man seeking to destroy a thing he hates rather than a man seeking truth.
You've devoted your life to undermining the authority of Scripture - to destroying, if possible, any faith that has been placed in it. I doubt you would express it in those terms. I believe you feel you're doing a good thing. You are setting people free from slavery to superstition. Yet I couldn't help but wonder, nor could your interviewer, what's left in the absence of faith. She asked you where you now find meaning in life. And you went on to proclaim your own gospel - a gospel of freedom from the knowledge of God. You described how your hope now lies in, well, the knowledge that after this life there's nothing - no one to answer to, nothing to account for, nothing to fear, nothing to anticipate. You describe the freedom that comes from knowing that - freedom to live each moment to the fullest, freedom to work to alleviate the suffering around you, etc.
This freedom you speak of has captured my imagination these last few days. I've thought long and hard, wondering what would be the way to live if this is all there is, if there is no God, no judge of the universe, no standards, no accountability, no ultimate right or wrong, no punishments, no rewards. There would be no sin, it is true. There would be no guilt, also true. There would also be no reason to respect human life or laws, other than to avoid arbitrarily established penalties. If men are not all created in the image of God, then there's no reason for me not to detest any person of a color not my own, or of lower intelligence, or one who is uglier, or crueler, or kinder, or more beautiful, or richer, or weaker, or older, or sicker.
And please don't speak to me of human dignity, of the higher good and the perpetuation of the species. What on earth difference does any of that make? If it's all just random, what the hell difference does any of it really make? There is no benefit, or lack thereof in the continuation of any species, or of this world as we know it. There is no reason for me to watch my language, to be kind, or to seek not to offend. As for those who suffer around me - there is no reason to feel anything but glad that it is them and not me who is suffering - unless of course I could think of something tangible to be gained in assisting them. There is no reason for me to love anyone except to the extent that they please me, and only for as long. There is no reason for me to love my children or care for them. There is no reason to refrain from abusing them, so long as it gives me relief or pleasure. There is no reason for me not to seek revenge if I feel "wronged" - though how I could be wronged, when there's no such thing as right - well.... (If I don't make it "right", who will?) In a godless world all there is for me, a being formed by random happenings, is my moment by moment sense of pleasure and pain (though why I would interpret one as "good" and the other as "bad" would also be a mystery) - or, as the Scripture so succinctly puts it: "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die".
I could go on like that, but I hope I've made my point. Your godless gospel, if wholeheartedly embraced and consistently applied, leads to destruction and death. But then, if your view is true, I suppose it doesn't really matter after all. And then, if it is true, it shouldn't matter so much to you what I believe either.