What Makes Unbelief So Terribly Believable?
I suppose at the end of the day I simply trust human intelligence. Anyone should be able to see whether a point of view is plausible or absurd, whether a historical claim has merit or is pure fantasy driven by an ideological or theological desire for a certain set of answers to be right.
[Love] rejoices in the truth.—Paul the apostle (1 Cor. 13:6)
By the time Bart Ehrman emerged from Princeton Seminary with his master of divinity and Ph.D. degrees, he was no longer the fundamentalist Christian he believed himself to be when he entered Moody Bible Institute as an undergrad. Nor was he the revised evangelical version he had become while completing his bachelor’s work at Wheaton College, another respected Christian school in the Chicago area.
Instead, during his years of postgraduate study, he did what he claims few other conservative Christians are willing to do: plow head first into the biblical evidence, letting it take him wherever it leads rather than forcing it to conform to his own preconceived biases and assumptions. He maintains that if the rest of us were prepared to do this, we would come to the same, inescapable conclusions he did. We would realize from a combination of hard proof and missing links that the Bible cannot really be trusted, no matter how badly we may wish it to be true. And we would see all our nice little well-meaning Christian beliefs for the childish notions they really are.
Ehrman lost his faith after engaging in enough of these scholarly skirmishes. And he’s been filching it from unsuspecting students ever since.
What is it, though, that makes his voice so credible? What turns a full-time religion professor (University of North Carolina, with an adjunct professorship at Duke University) into an academic rock star? How has he succeeded at moving hundreds of thousands of books—four titles on the New York Times list in the last nine years—when most other treatises on biblical history and hypothesis succeed at little more than curing their readers’ insomnia?
What is he selling that so many people are buying?
And what can you learn from the answers to these questions, in hopes that you won’t be drawn into the same fog of doubt and skepticism?
Here are four general, introductory observations, as well as some practical heads-up and takeaways, to help you see why skeptical professors succeed at making short work of so many students—and why you don’t need to be one of them. Not all of these tactics are wrong or underhanded in themselves, but you still need to be aware of them because they can easily be turned into points of entry to shape the way you receive information, giving doubt a softer, more agreeable place to land.
First, they speak your language. Ehrman, for example, comes at you with a story—very compelling—of how he gravitated toward Christian belief as a needy teenager, not far distant from the age and life experience of his college students. But his youthful, emotional zeal could only hold him for so long. What the church had done temporarily to satisfy his adolescent insecurities, he eventually found satisfied by academia and intellectual pursuits, until suddenly—finally—life began to make a lot more sense. Doubts that he had shushed away during his more faith-infused moments would no longer stay quiet. Of course the Bible is a man-made document, he reasoned. Of course God can’t be who the Bible claims him to be. Of course a man can’t come back from the dead. Of course there shouldn’t be such a vast difference between the version of reality the Bible paints and the one that swirls around us every day down here where we can see it and live it and smell it.
He’s not the only one, obviously, who experienced an agnostic epiphany during one of these wrestling matches, what he might call a head-clearing breath of intellectual honesty. But unlike the crusty, hardened image of the stereotypical skeptic, Ehrman doesn’t come off as cold, angry, and argumentative. In fact, he’s not above being surprisingly charming and vulnerable, admitting that he occasionally wakes up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, panicked at the prospect that perhaps he is wrong, perhaps hell is real, and perhaps he and others who’ve jettisoned their Christian faith midstream are in for some big trouble down the line.
He went on to do some personal grappling in his life with the issue of suffering and tragedy, struggling as many of us do to understand where God is when we’re hurting, when it seems he could do something about it if he wanted to. Who among us hasn’t tried to square how a good God can seem to so quietly, callously stand by while his creation is falling apart—while forty people plunge to their deaths in a freak bridge collapse in China, while a young single woman is raped along a wooded jogging trail in Pennsylvania, while children are shot in their classrooms in Connecticut by a gun-wielding lunatic, or tornadoes in Oklahoma devastate two elementary schools?
Good questions. Worth asking.
Most of us expect philosophical and doctrinal debates to occur within the stuffy air of intangible theories or amid the noisy clash of talking heads, picket signs, and television cameras. But wrap these same kinds of proceedings in the warm cloth and colors of a moving, personal story line, and the whole mood of the room changes. Guards and defenses come down. Now people are listening. Sympathizing. Laughing. Perhaps even nodding along, despite their confused, questioning disagreement inside.
They at least see where this person is coming from. Today we meet more people who have a story about how God let them down. Their faith was shaken to the core, and they are left with pain and doubt.
Again, not that there’s anything wrong with stepping out from behind the curtain of ideas to let your audience look into your eyes, hear your story, and see you as a real person. But an appealing narrative does not negate the role of truth as being the ultimate arbiter between competing lines of thought. Whether the engaging speaker is an agnostic New Testament professor or a tattooed guest pastor speaking every night of the week at church youth camp, the same standards of listening for truth still apply, no matter how much you may like the guy personally or feel he gets you.
It’s not how they say it; it’s what they’re saying.
Second, they know you’ve probably never contemplated these ideas before. The average person, even the average college student who’s spent their whole life in church, hasn’t invested a lot of time dwelling on the Bible’s origins or scouring the history pages of Christianity. They know only (or at least mainly) what their personal experiences with God have been like, but these alone are enough to leave them feeling fairly well versed in what’s most important about Christian faith. More than economics class or speech class, they come into this class with a range of deep, familiar understandings and memories about God that lead them to believe they’ve probably covered most of this material already when they were kids in vacation Bible school.
What a shock when the popsicles their new professor serves up don’t taste like those at all.
So for many this person becomes (like Ehrman) the witty tour guide, showing them around some fields of subject matter loaded with new sights and sounds and far more fascinating on the inside than they typically appear from the outside. You’ll get no argument from us on that.
The problem is that the tour guide—who correctly presumes his tour group probably doesn’t have the foggiest idea what they’re looking at—is in the enviable position of being able to choose the places you visit and what he wants to highlight about each one. As a result his rhetoric and interpretations of religious material all too often conceal a lot more than they reveal. And few if any in the classroom know enough to know the difference.
One of the things you really notice in Ehrman’s writings, for example—if you’re looking carefully—is that he rarely acknowledges counterarguments to his own positions. His treatments of issues are usually far more one-sided than the real discussion that’s taking place out here in the broader arena of religious scholarship.
He might take you, for example, into an interesting exhibit on biblical manuscripts and artifacts, unveiling a world of scribes and ancient parchments. But he’ll only show you enough evidence to help back up his claim that our modern-day Bibles can’t possibly be based on the original words of Scripture—if this is the shoddy method for how God handed down his holy words to us. He apparently assumes that simply by raising questions he’s giving you the only answers you should be willing to accept. Not so. Saying that the Bible could contain errors is a long way from proving it does. Just because a person says something might be true doesn’t necessarily mean it is.
But that’s how it’s done in many college classrooms, where seats on the Skeptical Biblical Tour bus head out every hour on the hour. They know it’s probably your first time going. They know they can fill up the whole class period pointing out all kinds of reasons for you not to trust the Bible. They also know the tour booklet you’re carrying (the textbook they’ve chosen) will back them up on everything they’re saying and showing you. And if you don’t have any real foundation in disputing or dealing with the various biblical or theological topics they’re raising, you’re likely to think, well ..., This guy sure sounds pretty convincing to me.
But they know better. They know that whether writing a book or presenting a paper or lecturing in a college class, any work of scholarship should set out to defend its position against the best of all opposing positions. Instead of hoping nobody looks over and says, “Hey, if what you’re saying is true, then what do you make of that—over there?” A fair-minded tour guide will want to take you around to all the exhibits, making sure you hear what everybody else is saying (even their critics), convinced that his or her arguments are stout enough to lick those of any challenger.
If you’re only hearing one side of the story or a narrow selection of sides—especially when the presenter knows you’re perhaps completely new to the line of study he’s bringing up—then you need to wonder why he’s not telling you what he’s not telling you, and how come he’s so careful not to show you the rest.