So far, but no farther… or maybe the journey has just begun

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by Neil Godfrey

I recently read something I liked on a blog run by someone (James Bishop) I would think of as a fundamentalist or certainly very conservative Christian. The article is Why I No Longer Hold to Inerrancy & The Need For A New Model of Inspiration. I was reminded so vividly of my own days of doubt and struggles with faith and attempting to be as honest as I believed I could be with myself.

James was faced with conflicts and at some point had the honesty to acknowledge that they were real:

As a Christian student in New & Old Testament Studies approaching the end of his time at university, I have discovered a number conflicts between conservative, fundamentalist Christian views of biblical inspiration (of which we will refer to as “classical inerrancy” or “inerrancy”) and what I have come to deem, more often than not, sound biblical scholarship.

He acknowledged that

these arguments require serious consideration especially if one wishes to take the Bible seriously and authoritatively.

Honesty. But the commitment remains. Faith is strong.

But here’s the part I particularly liked — with my emphasis:

Prior, however, I used to hold to inerrancy. I also once believed that every single challenge to the Bible was easily answered and refuted, and, for a time, thought that conflicts an inerrant view had with scholarship was a result of some anti-Christian “agenda” or “hate” towards Christianity. That was until I actually examined the alleged errors themselves, and soon realized that the answers provided on conservative apologetic websites were often grounded on little more than revisionist historical theories, fringe scholarly interpretations, fringe science, and contrived explanations attempting to explain away biblical inconsistencies.

What a welcome acknowledgement! The implication is that James Bishop no longer presumes that every challenge to the Bible is motivated by hate or an attempt to destroy Christianity.

It is a welcome acknowledgement because too frequently I read scholars and others accusing those who question the very foundations of the history of Christian origins of surely being driven, as “atheists”, by a hatred for Christianity and with a dedication to attempt to undermine all that is good about it. I refer in particular to those who entertain the possibility that Jesus was not a historical figure, of course.

Later in the post James explains why he parts ways with Bart Ehrman:

Long story short, as result of his discoveries that were in conflict with a conservative, inerrant view of biblical scripture, he [Bart Ehrman] is now one of Christianity’s biggest critics. He has sowed doubt in the lives of many Christians who have too come to realize the falsity of inerrancy. Inerrancy is spiritually dangerous in this way (see my argument in point 4e in this article). I have witnessed instances of Christians falling away from faith as a result of buying into the false dichotomy that one either embraces full blown inerrancy or rejects the Bible (a strawman caricature often embraced by both critics of the Bible/Christianity and inerrantists). Christian scholar Michael Bird captures this well explaining that this “means that if some young Christian comes across a passage of Scripture that is historically or ethically challenging, then they are faced with the choice between belief and unbelief,” and there lies the problem.

The point I want to make is that unlike Ehrman I wish to build up fellow believers in the faith. Unlike Ehrman, I also haven’t thrown in the towel, so to speak. I haven’t rejected Christianity or the inspiration and authority of the Bible.

I was not aware that Ehrman is one of Christianity’s biggest critics. In his recent Christmas posts he came across as still in love with the “fullness of meaning” of the Christmas story as found in the Bible. See Finding “unbelievable fullness of meaning” in the Christmas stories?

The problem, in James Bishop’s view, is that Christians who begin to see flaws in the Bible might toss it out completely. A fair reading of Ehrman’s views shows that even an agnostic or atheist can still express appreciation for the “unbelievable fullness of meaning” found in the Bible. Same for various Christ Myth theorists who have also expressed strong admiration for Christianity (e.g. Couchoud) and who even remain Christians (e.g. Brodie).

Reading James Bishop’s post is a déjà vu experience for me. It stirs old memories of my own past conflicts and strivings for both honesty and faith.

Many people struggle with the same conflicts. I think some of us find a solution to one particular conflict and rest satisfied with their resolution of it. Thus finding a new definition or understanding of what divine inspiration means is one way to reconcile certain facts about the Bible with one’s faith.

Others of us continue to question and don’t just stop when one conflict is resolved. They do not deny other conflicts as they arise. They confront them, and perhaps find new ways of reconciling opposites. Hence a few Christ mythicists, for example, find a way to maintain their belief in God and remain deeply devoted to the Christian message.

Some even go so far as to question why they believe in God at all. Is it true that morality cannot be justified or explained without God?

Some question the Bible and stop there when they find an answer. Some go further and question their faith and some might find a new set of definitions they are comfortable with there, too. Others go further still.

But at no point do any of us need to presume that those who go further with their questioning are necessarily driven by “some anti-Christian “agenda” or “hate” towards Christianity.” Or does that charge arise as a defence among those who cannot, for whatever reason, take their questioning any further? I can imagine believers having a very real fear of atheism and of atheism being a logical consequence of ongoing questioning. All I can say to those believers is, There is no need to fear. I can understand why someone only takes their questioning so far and no farther. We each stop where we feel most comfortable and it’s not for me to tell others they are wrong in choosing to find some solace in a level of religious belief in the short time they are on this planet.

I’d just like to reassure believers that being an atheist, and even having strong views about Christianity itself, does not mean we atheists all condemn individual believers for their choices or that our beliefs are driven by a “some anti-Christian agenda”.


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Neil Godfrey

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24 thoughts on “So far, but no farther… or maybe the journey has just begun”

  1. If I understand Ehrman correctly, he stopped believing when confronted with the problem of evil. Many Christians have gotten over the problem of inerrancy. Bart has the skills and the learning to make that leap. It’s tougher to face the problem of gratuitous suffering in the world while a “caring” creator looks ons and does nothing.

    For me, one of the greatest stumbling blocks was the notion that everyone else was going to hell — even people who never had a chance to “accept Jesus.” God could not be such a moral monster, could he?

    1. Exactly – IIRC the book he wrote on it is “God’s Problem.” Getting past that without emulating the Red Queen (“I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”) requires realizing that there’s something seriously wrong with Christian theology without, at the same time, throwing the entire spiritual project out and becoming a hard-core materialist (which implies being an atheist).

      It was fairly easy for me – my Christian upbringing (Methodist) simply never took. I dropped it without looking back when I left home. Later I had a real spiritual experience, and I’ve never looked back from that.

    1. Corpses do some strange things – they make noises, they move, give ‘birth’ and people freak out because they don’t exxpect these things from a corpse. That the corpse in said case ultimately was still a corpse tells me that Mr. Grindal just got more freaked out than most.

  2. The problems of evil and the unsaved who never heard the gospel were somewhat vitiated with the teachings of our cult that denied the immortality of the soul and the doctrine of eternal punishment. Everyone would be resurrected to have a chance to respond to the calling some time in the future “dispensation” and the incorrigible would ultimately cease to exist after the second death.

    Part of what prompted my longer journey out of religious belief altogether was the chance comment made at a vulnerable time that set me on a new journey of questions and doubts. I might have others say the same things many times before but there sometimes a word is heard just at a critical time that starts a whole new exploration.

    I suppose that’s how this blog started, to some extent. I was initially addressing others who had been through a similar journey but knowing that any changes of mind would always have to arise from the happenstance of words read mixing with just the right mind-set at just the right time.

    I can almost apply some Jesus parables to how it works! 😉

  3. Speaking of inerrancy, I’ve been working through Josh and Sean McDowell’s magnum opus of apologetics, the 2017 fully revised and expanded edition of “Evidence That Demands A Verdict.” It has endorsement blurbs from such conservative scholars like Mike Licona, Craig Evans, and William Lane Craig. Here is a typical apologetic nugget from the book:

    “[O]ne of my associates had always wondered why the books of Matthew and Acts gave conflicting versions of the death of Judas Iscariot. Matthew relates that Judas died by hanging himself. But Acts says Judas fell headlong in a field, and he ‘burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out (Acts 1:18).’ My friend was perplexed as to how both accounts could be true. He theorized that Judas must have hanged himself off the side of a cliff, the rope gave way, and he fell headlong into the field below. It would be the only way a fall into a field could burst open a body. Sure enough, several years later on a trip to the Holy Land, my friend was shown the traditional site of Judas’ death: a field at the bottom of a cliff outside Jerusalem. (McDowell and McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict, pg. 70, 2017)

    1. I guess if we could find an appropriate setting to film a scene from an Ian Flemming novel we would be able to prove that James Bond was also historical.

  4. We are entering or have already entered Orwell’s 1984 “Double Speak!” Yikes! That is why I could no longer hold to the absolute authority of the Bible or Christianity. It appears that Ehrman whom I have learned much from has not been too concerned with coherency….which is a serious problem in Christian theology or any theology, never mind its historical claims! And I say this as someone who loves reading theologies and doesn’t really know “god” which is what every theologian claims, regardless of what theology degrees one holds. I confess I am still involved in all that mess regardless of the debate, like many here perhaps who have become so dissastified with the whole thing , yet still super interested.

    from St. Hereticus (!)

  5. One thing I`ll say about the human race. When they are in the grip of a delusion, they fight to retain it no matter how much mind-bending effort it takes. Rational people who try to point out their errors are greeted with rejection bordering on hatred. If only shrinks were more courageous and pointed out the dangers of believing fables.

    1. Often the only intuition that we have that an idea is correct is how it makes us “feel”. There comes an intense emotional connection. You can certainly become in love with an idea. And the problem here is, that the way an idea makes us feel is in no way indicative of whether or not that idea is true. We don’t have any intuitive, simple way to know whether what we believe and think is true or not. We have to reason our way out of that. And that’s hard. That takes mental energy. It takes time. Many simply won’t invest it.

    2. Both comments here remind me of what someone said to me recently: having faith is like being in love; if others try to warn you against the one you loved they will almost always be hated for their efforts and their attempts will backfire and drive you more surely into your commitment for marriage.

  6. I understand honest believers, especially when I realize the amount of suffering that is in the world.
    When I was like eight years old I could not stop asking myself If there is actually a God considering all that death and violence between living creatures, especially humans. Then I answer for myself, that indeed there has to be God, because without him there would be only misery and injustice (as all small humans, I had great sense of justice). And that was simply too much for me to bear. I remember consolation that came to me from reading the Eight Blessings. That consolation was enough of a proof. So, when later in life I read statements like that of Dostoyevsky “If Christ is untrue, I want to be whit him rather than with the truth”, I’ve wholeheartedly agreed. And now, as atheist, I somewhat understand the spirit of that anecdote, in which Rabbi, facing reality of Auschwitz states that “Now that is a blasphemy against the God to say that there is a God”.

    That’s why I think that if as a child I would had a choice, I’ ll prefer to attend to marcionite church rather than to catholic one.

    And in the end, as an adult I put away my christian faith because of immense amount of suffering that had fell on my closest, beloved person.

    1. That’s one of the key themes that I liked in Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man series of novels. (Vridar is a near anagram the author used as the name of his “fictional self” in his “fictional biography” in the final work in that series, Orphans of Gethsemane.) Maturity comes when we stop constantly looking for a father figure — both in this world and in God. I suppose it does take some courage to face the world as it is and ourselves as we are. But no one can blame anyone for hoping for more.

    1. He is in deep. I wrote an article on how an anthropologist had seen a dead man come to life while working in Africa, and that there was a tell-tale clue that this event was hallucinatory (even besides the fact that the anthropologist was in a foreign country, and prior to the incident had little sleep, little to eat, and had been threatened, all of which factors together must have been highly stressful and are also potential causes of hallucination): some of the other people present had not seen the resurrected man.

      James Bishop responded by writing up a blog full of rationalizations for why other people hadn’t seen him (as if it was plausible that many of these people had just missed the resurrected man as another face in the crowd). Therefore group hallucinations don’t happen. Therefore back to believing in the resurrection of Christ.

      1. If you notice what he quotes for Group Hallucinations, it’s an article from 1977 from an interview by an apologist of a psychologist. Hell, if you want to see evidence of a Group Hallucination, look no further than the sun dancing in the sky at Medjugorjia, just for starters. One other note. I’m surprised your comments stayed. I made 4 respectful comments and only one made it through moderation. These guys typically tightly moderate their blogs to maintain control of the message.

  7. I came across Bishop’s blog a while back and after a discussion on archaeology and its relevance to Moses and the Exodus ( and other issues that he was completely inflexible about) he banned me from commenting.
    Funny how the worm turns!

    1. I’ve been banned from a number of Catholic blogs on Patheos. Many of them simply quite allowing comments altogether. They have to maintain their message.

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