It was in my second year of university that I began exploring my atheistic side. I suppose it had been there for several years, rearing its head briefly at weddings and funerals, but the day-to-day perversions and guilty pleasures of one’s teenage years do not lend themselves to introspection or contemplating one’s beliefs. As I transitioned from the couch surfing apathy of my teen years to the budding mind of an early twenties undergrad, I became eager to dissect my atheism and the beliefs of others. I took advantage of any opportunity that presented itself to engage my peers on this topic. Being enrolled in the sciences, I found myself in the presence of atheists more often than I would outside the university walls (which was almost never). I was curious about what it was that had lead others to atheism and so this was always among the first questions I would ask. I was surprised to learn that some of those who I surveyed had based their beliefs, or lack thereof, on reasoning that was just plain bad. For example, some expressed a discomfort with being told how to live their life as a factor in their atheism, while others offered that the cruelty of the god of the old testament influenced their movement toward non-belief. Not liking what is in the bible says nothing to whether it is true or not.
An individual’s reasons for becoming an atheist can be well thought out, based on logic and rational thought, or they can be illogical, off the mark and/or impulsive. Being an atheist means that you have rejected the claims of every religion that you are aware of. The rejection of Christianity is but one doctrine of many that I have determined to be unmerited with respect to truthfulness, but it is perhaps the most significant rejection as it is the doctrine I was brought up to believe. In the remainder of this short essay, I will attempt to present a logical explanation for why I have become a bible skeptic, and thus a non-believer of the Christian faith.
In my opinion, there are two primary academic arguments against the legitimacy of the bible: the historicity argument and the contradiction argument. I will not focus significant attention to either because they are not my thoughts and because I believe that a personal approach would prove more compelling in this context, compared to an academic one. However, I do think it important to dedicate some time to covering off these bases, albeit at the highest level. Following this terse sampling of the historical literature, I will provide a more thorough and personal explanation of the experiences, knowledge and decision making that has informed my own beliefs.
To my knowledge, the most comprehensive and convincing assessment of bible historicity comes from Bart Ehrman (see Jesus Interrupted, for example). For purposes of brevity, I will focus on one particular line of argumentation of his that I find especially compelling. Ehrman purports that in assessing the historical accuracy of the bible, it fails on all essential measures generally agreed upon by historians in determining the probability of an event having occurred: primary sources, multiple sources, contemporary sources, and unbiased (corroborating but not collaborating) sources.
It is widely agreed that historical confirmation of the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into heaven is necessary for the validity of the bible and thus for belief in Christianity. Simply put, if Jesus did not resurrect the sins of humanity would not have been absolved, the case for his divinity would be weakened significantly if not lost all together, and his relevance as a historical figure would be greatly diminished. Therefore, this biblical event is ripe for historical analysis.
The gospel of Mark reports that there were two women and one man who were present at Jesus’s tomb following his ascension into heaven three days after his crucifixion. It is important here to note that while these three people ostensibly witnessed the empty tomb from where Jesus is said to have resurrected, none of them recorded it. It is likely that none of these people would have had the ability to write, so this is not all that surprising.
The four gospel writers who wrote of this event did not claim to have witnessed the resurrection or the empty tomb, and did not write of the event for decades after its alleged occurrence. In fact, it is generally believed by biblical historians that the four gospels were written by unknown authors who had no direct association with Jesus. So, in terms of having a primary source, the gospels fail quite badly. On the measure of multiple sources, the resurrection story seems to fair better at first glance. After all, it was reported by four different authors: Mark, Mathew, Luke and John. But a more granular look presents a significant problem. it is widely agreed, again by biblical historians, that the writings of Mathew and Luke were influenced by those of Mark, which weakens the corroboration measure by way of collaboration. In addition, the gospel writers were themselves early Christians and so cannot be considered unbiased in their claims. Finally, the gospel accounts are estimated to have been written 20 to 60 years after the death of Jesus, approximately 2000 years ago, thus scoring poorly in providing a contemporary timeframe.
Building on the same example as above, contradictions between the four gospels present a major problem in demonstrating a high probability that the resurrection actually occurred. Depending on which gospel you read, the resurrection was either witnessed by two women (Matthew), two women and a man (Mark), many women (Luke) or a single woman (John). Obviously all reports cannot be true. So at best, one or multiple women provided a personal and accurate account of Jesus’s resurrection to one of the gospel writers, or to someone who told the gospel writers (or someone who told someone who told the writers, and so on), while similar but wrong accounts were provided by someone else to the other three gospel writers (or the other writers took liberties). This is problematic on its own, but is confused further by the fact that the reports also differ in the details of what was discovered at the tomb. Matthew depicts a violent earthquake followed by the arrival of an angel who rolled away the stone. Mark describes a man dressed in white waiting for the witnesses at the tomb, with the stone already rolled away. Luke explains that the witnesses found the tomb empty, the stone already rolled away, followed by the arrival of two men whose clothes “gleaned like lightning.” John simply states that the witness found the stone removed and the tomb empty. Again, the writers of the gospels were not first-hand witnesses to the resurrection, which creates a major problem in and of itself. Even if the four gospel writers spoke directly to the woman (or women) who witnessed the empty tomb, we must ask what is the most likely explanation? That a miracle happened? Or that the woman (or women) lied, was mistaken, or never existed at all i.e., the presence of the woman (or women) and the story of the crucifixion was manufactured by the authors. The answer should be obvious. If your neighbour came to your door in a panic, explaining that he had just witnessed a man die, raise from the dead and ascend into heaven, you simply would not believe him. No, you would assume that this person was lying, mistaken or had experienced some sort of hallucination.
A Personal Experience
I was born an atheist and raised catholic. I remained catholic until somewhere between the ages of 15 and 20. Like most atheists, I presume, I did not convert over night. It was an accumulation of information and thoughts, over time, that patiently led me astray. I’m not quite sure if it was my unbelief in god that caused me to question the legitimacy of the bible or my discomfort with the bible that led to my unbelief. The answer to this is not all that relevant as I have dedicated many hours contemplating the validity of the bible since losing my faith.
It was only recently that I became interested in the academic arguments against the legitimacy of the bible. As compelling as they are, the sculpted arguments produced by academics from a wide range of disciplines (history, philosophy, theology, biology and physics) were not required for the formation of my own beliefs. However, they have helped validate my own conclusions and from time to time have provided leverage in discussions with pious relatives or unwelcome door to door zealots pitching their spiritual wares.
My first steps in the direction of unbelief came at a young age, during a time when I was at my most pious, perhaps 8 or 9 years old. I prayed to god regularly, and even spoke to him casually from time to time, not out loud but with the voice in my head. I asked him for things, like most people do, be it advice, comfort, actions, rewards; the usual wish list. Initially, it was ok that my voice was left unanswered, after all god is a busy guy right and he works in mysterious ways, ways a mere child might not recognize. Well, it was only a matter of time before I started wondering if there was in fact anyone out there. According to the bible, god was listening, waiting to answer my prayers because I believed in him, but while I kept my end of the bargain he did not keep his. Looking back on this time in my life now I blush, both in recognizing my willingness to believe whatever I wanted to be true, and in remembering my unrelenting desire to live in a world that wasn’t real and, in retrospect, was not even all that appealing.
My next movements in the direction of atheism, and toward a stronger skepticism of the bible’s proclamations, came while studying the sciences in high school. The beauty I had once seen as a chid in the bible was quickly and thunderously replaced by the awe I felt when learning about the mechanics of the universe and the workings of the living cell. If you have not already taken the opportunity to situate yourself as a tiny speck, looking out at a broad unending sky, or a giant looking down into the depths of a microscopic wonderland of perfectly synchronized parts, I urge you emphatically to do so. It will bring you great joy and contentment. But I have digressed. Learning of the vastness of the universe, in both time and space, and the relative smallness of one’s own life requires the student to take on a new perspective of life. To refrain from doing so would be an invitation for cognitive dissonance to set up shop in one’s head. Understanding Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity is empowering, unlike anything I’ve experienced. To look at space and time and gravity and understand how they actually behave is proof that the human mind can achieve wonderful things; understandings that were once unimaginable. To close one’s eyes and envisage DNA being read inside the nucleus of a cell and protein being assembled a small distance away is to understand life itself; its mechanics but also its meaning.
So, what does this have to do with the bible and my skepticism of its validity? It’s quite simple really. For me, a book that is said to be the greatest and most enlightening of all time in terms of explaining life and the universe fails with unfathomable severity if it says nothing of the laws of physics, trivializes the formation of the universe and planets, is wrong about the arrangement of celestial bodies or does not make reference to biological workings at the cellular level or the levels below. However, this is in fact what the the Old Testament offers in terms of explaining the world in which we find ourselves; nothing. While the New Testament attempts to explain little, if anything at all, about our physical environment, it does provide a moral code. However, this code, to treat others kindly and as you expect to be treated yourself, is one that was not uncommon at the time it was written and had in fact predated it by many years – see the works of Aristotle, for example.
It can be said that the teachings of the bible are not concerned with the workings of the physical world and that any propositions in this regard should be read as metaphor. On the former, I would ask why on earth would you (God) think that we would not be interested in questions of this sort – it is these very questions that had occupied the minds of leading thinkers for many centuries before you sent down your son. And on the latter, the fact that biblical answers to empirical questions are explained as metaphors only after being proven wrong by scientific investigations should be viewed with suspicion, if not incredulity.
Finally, in university my eyes were opened to the world of evolutionary theory. If my religious belief was not already dead at this time, it was surely now being given its last rights. The wonder and beauty of evolutionary theory is revealed through its far reaching explanatory power juxtaposed against its surprising simplicity. In the words of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” In my opinion it is the single most significant finding in the history of mankind, as it answers the single most important question that has ever been asked – “where did we come from?” The bible’s rib and clay explanation is majestic, albeit incestuous, but it has not been supported by a single piece of evidence or even a rational guess at how this could be physically possible. It is clear that the cashing out of this explanation is not meant to be found in the physical world, rather it is meant to be drawn out of faith and imagination. While this might be an approach that brings great comfort at a low cost, it is my contention that it is not at all effective in discovering truth.
6 thoughts on “A Bible Skeptic”
I’m not sure I understand you’re dismissal of the resurrection. You stated:
” That a miracle happened? Or that the woman (or women) lied, was mistaken, or never existed at all i.e., the presence of the woman (or women) and the story of the crucifixion was manufactured by the authors. The answer should be obvious. If your neighbour came to your door in a panic, explaining that he had just witnessed a man die, raise from the dead and ascend into heaven, you simply would not believe him. No, you would assume that this person was lying, mistaken or had experienced some sort of hallucination.”
The story of the crucifixion could not have been manufactured by the authors, we know secular historians corroborate that Jesus was crucified, (or at least put to death) under the reign of Tiberius (i.e. Tacitus, Thallus, Mara Bar Serapion)
Since the testimony of women was disregarded in the ancient legal world (see Josephus and the Talmud, although the exact references escape me) we would wonder why the disciples would choose to make up women as the first eyewitnesses. They wouldn’t have. The most reasonable explanation is they were simply recording what happened.
Which only leaves two other explanations you present. They lied or were mistaken.
If they lied…why? What would they gain and more importantly what would cause the disciples to believe them? That must be answered before anyone can hold to a deception theory with any intellectual satisfaction.
If they were mistaken then how? I don’t think you really elaborated on that in the article.
However I will say briefly that the resurrection as a historical event does not rise or fall on the infallibility of the NT. Although I firmly believe the NT to be inspired and inerrant, again, this doesn’t in and of itself deal with the resurrection directly. We know the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead outside the NT.
I might ask, we have an entire religion that exists based upon the claim that a Man rose from the dead, which better explanation would you present?
Thanks for the comment Anthonius Apologius. I agree that there is some evidence that jesus was put to death but I haven’t seen any good evidence to suggest he raised from the dead.
I could just as easily ask why the gospel authors and all those in between would accept the testimony of women.
Why did they lie (if they lied)? There are many reasons why they could have lied. It’s not important the precise reason they lied but that there are many conceivable reasons they might have.
On why they were mistaken (if they were), the same reason the followers of false prophets are mistaken in today’s age (see scientology, mormonism, sashay said baba).
On your last point, there are many religions that are based on extraordinary claims, do we take all those claims as true for that reason?
“I could just as easily ask why the gospel authors and all those in between would accept the testimony of women”
They wouldn’t and they didn’t, the gospels even say so, something else made them believe, including the apostle Paul who wasn’t among the twelve which the women would have told. The question is what?
“but that there are many conceivable reasons they might have.”
OK… Such as? There are things that are conceivable to believe but that doesn’t make them reasonable to believe. If we’re accusing a 2,000 year old religion to have been started by a group of Jewish peasant women who pulled a fast one we need to have some evidence not just postulations.
As far as the women being mistaken I would say even giving credence to the idea that they were mistaken shows us that they truly believed Jesus to have risen the question is why. And if the women were mistaken what then caused the disciples to believe?
Something else made them believe…ok. but that doesn’t add any value to the claim. There are many things that cause people to believe things that aren’t true – take the people who believe vaccines cause autism for example.
They might have lied to get a rise out of people. They might have lied because they believed this happened but didn’t witness it and knew this was the only way to convince people. Political reasons. There really are quite a number of conceivable reasons they might have lied. The resurrection is an extraordinary claim – it requires evidence to support it, not the many logical scenarios that suggest it’s improbable. This is true of all proposed miracles, is it not?
“There are many things that cause people to believe things that aren’t true – take the people who believe vaccines cause autism for example.”
If we can establish that the disciples actually believed He rose from the dead, that rules out the possibility they were lying.
“They might have lied to get a rise out of people. ”
Given the world in which they lived, a resurrection is far more likely. Anyone hanged on a tree, or crucified during that time was seen as being under God’s curse. Anyone following a Messiah who was viewed as a false prophet would have been persecuted and killed. Which is exactly what happened. Jesus caused quite a stir, and the only thing the disciples would have gained from getting a rise out of people by preaching His resurrection was death.
” They might have lied because they believed this happened but didn’t witness it and knew this was the only way to convince people.”
But why would they want to convince people of something that they knew wasn’t true? And even if they did want to do that, that would require us to believe that a group of pious Jewish men who’s religion forbade lying, went around the world telling people something they knew was not true, only to be killed and tortured…why?
You have a blog, and you write about atheism. Suppose you knew for certain atheism was wrong, would you go around trying to convert a culture to atheism where atheists were killed? Think about that.
Basically, the disciples being dishonest, considering who they were and the world they were living in, flies against all known human psychology.
Which only leaves the option that the disciples were mistaken. Which has an entirely different set of problems.
Determining someone believed something to be true does not establish that they didn’t lie. They could have manufactured evidence to help propagate their beliefs. And there’s no reason to suggest the disciples, and especially the gospel writers, had any good reason to believe that the resurrection occured.
Messiah proclamations were actually quite common at that time from what I understand. And I don’t think the followers of Messiahs at this time were paid much attention. Happy to review any evidence to the contrary you provide.
Again, to clarify, they could have lied to make their extraordinary claims seem more credible, while still believing the claim to be true.