Several months ago, I received a letter from a childhood friend whom I haven’t heard from in a very long time. She and I were both raised in the same fundamentalist branch of Christianity (Church of Christ), and our parents are still very close. Her preacher recently did a series of sermons on evidences for Christianity, and they impressed her enough that she felt the need to mail me copies of the CDs (14 of them!) as well as an apologetics book, Surveying the Evidence, by Kyle Butt, Wayne Jackson, and Eric Lyons. I immediately wrote her back and thanked her for sending the material. After all, it shows a deep concern for my eternal well-being, and that of my family, so I know it comes from the best possible motives. It’s a caring gesture. In my response to her I promised to read the book and listen to all the CDs.
A few weeks ago, I finally finished going through all the material. The book was not very good. First of all, I’m definitely not part of its intended audience. I think it was written to be used as a classroom workbook for churches to use in their classes. The chapters are short and not very in-depth, and there are discussion topics and questions at the end of each. The information given is often incomplete, and when the views of “skeptics” and “evolutionists” are given, they’re typically presented as straw men. I’ve read one of Wayne Jackson’s books before, and I wasn’t impressed by it either. In fact, it pushed me closer to non-belief (I read it when I was still going through my deconversion). The authors of this book approach the evidence in the same way that Norman Geisler and Josh McDowell do. They insist on biblical inerrancy, and I feel that they’re forced to be somewhat dishonest in the information they present. I have far more respect for Christian authors like Peter Enns, because he tends to treat the evidence honestly — he just comes to different conclusions about it than I would.
It was evident that some of the sermons had relied heavily on the same book, or at least on material written from the same point of view. However, I’d have to say that I thought the sermons were a bit better than the book, overall. I never got the impression that the preachers on these CDs were being dishonest. I think they’ve just been too heavily influenced by people who either leave out important information, or just misrepresent it altogether.
Anyway, I thought some of you might be interested by the response I wrote to her. I’ve removed her name and the names of the preachers involved.
I finished reading the book you sent me a little while back, and this week I finally finished listening to all the CDs. Again, I appreciate your sending them to me. Both Mr X and Mr Y are obviously gifted speakers, and they present their cases well.
I actually started a response to you about a week ago, before I had finished the last few CDs, but it started to run into several pages, and I’m just not sure that that’s the best kind of response. So instead, I’m moving to something more general. To put it simply, there’s an awful lot of information that the book and CDs you sent don’t cover. When Mr X and Mr Y talk about what skeptics believe, they’re mostly presenting straw man arguments. In other words, it’s not a very accurate depiction of the reasons why people doubt the Bible, which is why Mr X and Mr Y seem to make such compelling arguments. They may not realize that their characterization of how non-believers view the Bible is inadequate, so I’m not trying to suggest that they’re purposely misleading anyone.
If you like, I can send you specific responses to many of the statements made in the CDs that you sent — that’s actually what I started to do about a week ago. But you may not want to be inundated with all that, which I can understand. So in this letter, I’ll try to cover just a few things quickly to give you an idea of the very real difficulties that make people question the Bible’s legitimacy and Christianity altogether.
First of all, let’s not get sidetracked on things like evolution and the Big Bang. I disagree with most of what Mr X said in those CDs — the evidence for the Big Bang and evolution is pretty overwhelming if you take the time to look into it. And if you’re ever curious, a good starting point is a website called TalkOrigins. That link takes you to their “Index of Creationist Claims.” Most of what Mr X mentioned as evidence for creationism can be found there, along with explanations of why they’re not accurate, and sources for further reading.
But again, I don’t think it’s useful to get bogged down in those issues. For the sake of argument, I’ll go ahead and concede that God exists. But just because a God exists, that doesn’t mean the Bible was inspired by him. So the real discussion should always be about how to defend the Bible.
Here are some things you can check out for yourself:
Read Matthew 27:3-10 and closely compare it to Acts 1:18-19. These are the accounts of Judas’s death. You’re probably already aware that Matthew says Judas died by hanging himself, but Acts says he died by falling headlong in a field, which ruptured his abdomen. Most people put these two accounts together and say something like the following: “Judas hung himself, but at some point, the rope broke, and his body fell and burst open.” That seems to tie everything together, but really look at it for a minute.
First of all, both passages are explaining how Judas died. Well, that could only have happened one way. Either Judas hanged himself and died that way, or he fell and suffered a fatal wound. If we put the accounts together, that still leaves some problems. Let’s say he actually died by hanging himself, but the rope later broke, and his body burst open when it fell to the ground. Well, he still would have died by hanging, which makes Acts inaccurate — we don’t really care what happened to the body once he was dead, after all. What if he attempted to hang himself, but the rope broke before he died, and it was the fall that actually killed him. In that case, Matthew is wrong to say that he died by hanging himself. If it really required both the hanging and the fall, then both accounts are inaccurate.
Now, ask yourself these questions: who bought the field? Can we even be sure that the field in Matthew and the field in Acts are the same, based on the details they offer? Why was the field called “the Field of Blood”? The two accounts answer all of those questions differently.
Finally, Matthew 27:9-10 says that this episode fulfilled a prophecy given by Jeremiah. But Jeremiah didn’t give a prophecy like this. The closest thing to it is something found in Zechariah, and even that isn’t a real prophecy if you go read it in context (Zech 11:12-13).
There have been all kinds of attempts to reconcile this discrepancy, but none of them make much sense. Some have said that the prophets were sometimes collected into a scroll that would start with Jeremiah, and that’s simply what Matthew was referring to. But that’s not what he says. He says that Jeremiah spoke the prophecy. Even if someone had been using a scroll, they would be able to tell when they got to the end of what Jeremiah had written, and it’s easy to see how they may have been troubled by the prophecy not being there. And if Matthew had simply attributed it to Zechariah, his audience still would have known how to look that up — in fact, it would have been much easier for them. Often, Matthew feels comfortable referencing “prophecies” without specifying the prophet that said it. He could easily have done that here as well. And since (if he were inspired) God would want this message to be understandable to all the generations that came after him, it makes absolutely no sense that God would allow this kind of mistake.
I spent a little more time on Judas than I meant to, but it’s a pretty clear place to see the kinds of discrepancies that are throughout the Bible. Another good example concerns Jesus’s birth. Carefully read Matthew 1:18 through chapter 2, and then carefully read Luke 2:1-40. I’d suggest taking notes — a column for Matthew and a column for Luke. Look for these things in particular: how did Jesus’s family get to Bethlehem? Why were they there? What kind of building was Jesus born in? Who came to the birth? How long did they stay in Bethlehem after his birth? Where did they go as soon as they left Bethlehem? Why did they go to those places? Can you combine both narratives into one account that includes all the details from both?
You might be interested to know that Matthew is the only source for the idea that Herod killed a bunch of babies in Bethlehem. No historian, not Josephus, nor any historians who lived during Herod’s reign (even those who were critical of him) ever recorded this event. No other book in the Bible references it. Also, Matthew claims that certain parts of Jesus’s life and ministry fulfill all kinds of Old Testament prophecies. I recommend you read through Matthew, and every time he claims that something fulfills prophecy, go read the passages he’s referencing. See if they actually look like prophecies. Even the virgin birth prophecy. By the way, Matthew was using the Septuagint for the OT, and we’ve discovered that the word for “virgin” in the Septuagint was misleading. The Hebrew text uses a word that simply means “young woman” or “maiden,” which means Isaiah may never have been talking about an actual virgin giving birth at all.
Mr Y spent his last two sermons talking about the canon of scripture versus things like the Apocrypha. But check this out: here’s a quote from the apocryphal (and pseudepigraphal) Book of Enoch (Enoch 1:9):
And behold! He cometh with ten thousands of His holy ones
To execute judgement upon all,
And to destroy all the ungodly:
And to convict all flesh
Of all the works of their ungodliness which they have ungodly committed,
And of all the hard things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.
Now look at this passage from Jude 14-15:
It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”
If the Book of Enoch was not written by Enoch (as far as I know, no scholars think it was), why does Jude quote it as though it was? And if the Book of Enoch is actually legitimate and contains real prophecy (as Jude claims), why isn’t it in the Bible?
I think that Mr X or Mr Y may have mentioned these next things, but I can’t remember for sure. Because we now have so many manuscripts for the various books in the Bible, we’ve realized that the last 11 verses of Mark were not originally part of Mark. They were added by someone later. In other words, they weren’t inspired. After all, if God had originally wanted them in Mark, they would have been written at the same time as the rest of the book.
John 7:53-8:11 were also added later. They weren’t originally part of John. And this is the story of the woman caught in adultery! Where Jesus says “he who is without sin, cast the first stone”! Can you think of a more famous story about Jesus? But this wasn’t originally part of the Bible. Who added it? Why? Some apologists claim that this was likely a true story about Jesus anyway, but how could they possibly know that? Just taking these two examples, we know for a fact that the Bible contains uninspired material. What else might be uninspired?
Okay, this letter is long enough, I think. I hope that it hasn’t upset you too much, but I know that it might have. It’s hard for me to know how much to write… I’m afraid that if I don’t show you any evidence, you’ll think I’m just willfully ignoring the “clear” evidence that shows how reliable the Bible really is. But this is something that I take very seriously, and I’ve studied it quite a lot over the last several years. The evidence for the Bible is simply not as clear and straightforward as we were always told. In fact, the evidence against it is quite compelling.
Again, if you’d like to know more, I’d be happy to send you more information. You can always visit my blog, if you want, and you can always email me. But unless I hear otherwise, I’ll assume you’d rather not discuss this any further. And I totally understand that — it opens quite a can of worms. And if you’re happy with what you believe, then you may not want to dig any deeper.
I hope you and your family are doing well. Thanks again for sending me all this material — I know how much care and concern it shows.
I don’t anticipate hearing back from this friend, but if I do, I’ll give an update.
54 thoughts on “Letter to a Friend”
It’s so hard to have conversations like this. I had a friend who sent me an e-mail asking for prayers for her safety on an international trip she was going on, and I replied saying hey, I don’t do that anymore, but I can connect you with someone I know who’s been to that country if you want to get some travel tips. I was trying to politely tell her I’m not a religious person but that I do want to offer my support as a friend. She never replied and hasn’t spoken with me since. I was hurt at first but I have to remember that religion is so important to some people, and sometimes they can’t wrap their heads around the possibility of someone close to them not participating in it.
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Yeah, it can make for some awkward interactions. I recently reached out to an old friend that I hadn’t been around in years to see if he wanted to grab some lunch. When we sat down to eat, he asked if I wanted to say the blessing or if he should… I said he could. 🙂
I knew that he didn’t know about my deconversion, and I didn’t plan to bring it up. Just wanted to catch up on life in general. But he did eventually ask if we were going to the same church, so I had to tell him. It had been a really long time since I’d had to tell someone that I was no longer religious… and why I wasn’t. I find the “why” to be the hardest part. I never want to make the other person think I’m asking them to defend their faith, but if I give NO reason, they don’t understand why I left.
Luckily, the conversation went about as well as it could have. I’m going to ask him to lunch again in another week or so, and I guess that will be real test.
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Good note and letter, Nate. My deconversion was pathetic compared to yours – no major bible knowledge. But for many evangelicals whose faith is so tied up with feeling rational, reasoned and right, your approach is very helpful — the theological, bible critique. Other people don’t even need Bible talk to deconvert, they barely need a little push when their mind (and things in their life) are ripe for leaving an outdated life raft.
Always a good Bible Study — reading your posts. Thanx
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I hate to admit, every time I here someone arguing verses in the bible, koran or tora I want to throw up. This applies to myself more than anyone else. Right now, inside me I want to elaborate, quote, explain the fucking bible. I’m not gonna do it! I promise! If you read the first two chapters…………… I hate myself.
Thanks for the link, it is Sunday. LOL
Let me be very clear, we, the human race has no idea about the beginning of our existence. I think not knowing is the beauty of life, to be celebrated. Searching the beauty of our mind, the beauty of our planet and universe produces wonder and awe. Superstitions of thousands of years, some written with good intentions, most with ulterior motives, keep us walking in a maze. With all the knowledge we have at our disposal, the masses hold on to what is obviously inventions of our very race. Celebrate life, seek, work, play, make love. Yes, celebrate the obvious, we do not know, but everyday we are searching. The answer is not in a supernatural being, not in old manuscripts of superstitions, that’s the Good News. You can be free to think, freely, clearly, rationally and critically. With this bold move, you can be part of the human race and move closer to world peace.
Sent from Jerry
You’ve definitely got more patience than I do. I think most apologetics material is written with believers in mind. I couldn’t sit through that much of it.
You have to be the most diplomatic person . . . seriously. I really hope you’ve given her some food for thought. 🙂
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Hi Nate, nice to hear from you again, and to hear this personal story. I think you handled it pretty well. Christians are supposed to speak the truth in love (though not all do it), and you have tried to do exactly that.
I agree with you, and Daniel, that a lot of christian apologetics is actually written for other christians. I’ve seen it happen in the church I currently attend. Both high school kids at youth group and adults in church get given talks that are supposed to answer difficult questions, but I don’t think they answer the questions at all. If I agree with their beliefs and think the answers are bad, what is any non-believer going to think?
I think many christians start from the assumption of inerrancy, or inspiration (these are certainly not the same) and then try to fit everything in without every asking if that is the correct assumption. I think the Bible is inspired but not inerrant, but these words require definition and I feel sure that you and I have different definitions of “inspiration”. That means I feel some of your answers are straw men also, compared to what I believe, though probably quite fair for the beliefs of your friend.
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Thanks for all the great comments!
Daniel — yeah, it was a lot! There were certainly things I’d rather have spent my time doing. 🙂
Jerry — thanks for the comment. I think I see what you’re saying about the incredible amount of possibility that lies before us when it comes to the causes of our universe. I couldn’t agree more.
Carmen — that’s very kind of you. For many years, I was on the other side of those kinds of letters (or face-to-face conversations, etc). I know what it’s like to honestly be concerned for someone’s soul, so I think that helps me view outreach attempts like this in such a positive light.
Sabio — thanks! 🙂
unkleE — I really appreciate your comment. I completely agree with your last sentence, in particular. I think you would have been very frustrated by this book and the sermons.
Nate I endorse the comments of Daniel and Carmen earlier.
The thing that is nagging at me is the agenda of the apologists. I ponder whether they deliberately mislead or whether to some extent they are a victim of some psychological trap of really wanting to believe which overrides their critical thinking skills.
When I was involved in ministry I was asked why the genealogies in Luke and Matthew differed. My ‘research’ suggested that it was that Luke told the descent via Mary and Matthew via Joseph. I accepted that, it seemed to make sense.
After I deconverted and read some counter apologetic material I noted it was argued both were said be the genealogy via Joseph. So I checked the Bible text and realised both said they were via Joseph. Thus the apologist argument was a straight out lie. But when I was acting as a sort of apologist intermediary I never checked this detail I just lapped up the reason, so glad there was an explanation. I sense I did not really want to know that the reason might be incorrect.
I agree with you. I think that’s exactly what happens with many people. In fact, it was this trust of other Christian “experts” that kept me from asking a number of questions for a long time, too.
When it comes to the guys who actually write books about these issues, where do you think they fall on the spectrum? And I mean that as a genuine question, because I’m not sure myself. I tend to feel that they’re being dishonest, but I concede that it’s possible I’m wrong about that. I just have a hard time understanding how people who study these issues enough to write books about them can honestly buy some of the excuses they give. But I don’t know… the one thing I’ve learned is that people don’t always think in the same ways. My reasons for believing in Christianity were vastly different than many of those I used to worship with (as I found out).
Nate my gut feeling is that most of people who write apologetic books are not being deliberately deceitful. I tend to see them as victims of the application of extreme confirmation bias. I suppose what I mean is that most of them start with the presupposition that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and this informs the way they consider each issue.
What I mean is that suppose there is an issue and there are two possible interpretations, if the one that supports inerrancy is say a 1% probability and the interpretation that argues against inerrancy is a 99% probability then they will go with the 1% probability explanation and consider the matter sufficiently dealt with.
It was only once I was prepared to consider the possibility that the Bible might not be inerrant that I came to see how the apologist will grasp at the most unlikely explanation to explain away difficulties.
I think that’s a great response Nate. I think that given how much effort they put into sending you a bunch of material, you should do the same in return and critique it they way you did.
Maybe it will open a dialogue, maybe it won’t. I think you’ve made an appropriate response. Please let us know if you hear back.
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It helped me to see the whole apologist thing from a larger shared perspective — that is, the phenomena of apologist. I personally saw apologists in the following realms do basically the same thing:
6. Multi-level Marketing
Once we see the pattern, it is easy to see everywhere. But if you have only one religion you have seen it in, it might be harder to see through.
The amount of books and authors on Astrology is amazing. The defense of astrology is similar to the defense of religions. And like one of your commentors above, getting into these conversations with astrology fans is nauseating and repulsive to me — I just have no patience to work through the complex knots they tie. Foremost, I have largely forgot the stuff and don’t want to. I know what I think. But thinking about it, Christians feel this way about atheists too: they have read some apologist stuff, know atheists are wrong, but don’t have the time or inclination to keep up on the complex arguments so dismiss atheist objections having “faith” that the atheist anti-bible rambling is wrong. Just as atheists (myself, here), may not bother with argumentative astrology advocates, because I have “faith” that they are wrong.
I think you gave a reasonable response.
I have had to deal with people who continuously come after me, to save me! After the first few times, I try to react like you, that they are only looking out for my salvation but after a while, it gets annoying. 🙂
Being an ex-Evangelical, I think it is fair to remember that, they may have best intentions — our salvation — but they are also to shake the dust of their shoes (feet – Matt 10:14) and give us up for damned to burn in hell. Are they really being kind and thoughtful? I don’t think so. They are trying to be self-righteous and it shows when they fail. No love there.
OK, sorry for the cynical note.
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I think for many of them, they are self-righteous jerks, but for many others, I think they truly and sincerely care a great deal.
Even when they eventually shake the dust off of their feet, if they do, and cease casting their pearls before swine, it’s with great heaviness in the heart, and they’re doing it because they think that they have to choose between their loved one and their savior. They think Jesus commands it, and they likely view it like some sort of test. I feel sorry for these people.
I think they’re too afraid of looking behind the curtain, or even to acknowledge that there is a curtain.
Although I’m not always good at it, I think the best way to convince believers that non-believers aren’t wicked, black ooze filled, demon people, is to be better at love and patience than they are… I can be pretty bad at it, but i do think it’s the best course.
I think nate’s doing it right. we shouldn’t be weary in well doing, after all….
I think that’s a good explanation, Peter. I can buy that. It’s far preferable to thinking that they’re consciously misleading people.
And Sabio, that’s interesting about the other fields (like Astrology). I hadn’t thought to look into that, but it makes sense.
William and David, thanks for your comments!
Excellent response. I also think you have oodles of patience, Nate.
And there is a definite plus side – for you and us – in that continually writing about these topics not only clarifies your own thoughts on the issues but broadens understanding of the material, allows interaction and thus, further refining of these topics.
And of course there are always the lurkers …
I just finished reading (again) “Constantine’s Bible” by David L. Dungan, Dungan gives a historical view of how our present Bible was formed. He provides 50 pages of reference notes at the end to support his 159 page book.
I will be challenging my Christian friends going forward to read it. It leaves no reason to believe the Bible was ever inerrant or should be taken seriously today.
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Thanks Ark! I really appreciate that.
kc, that sounds like a cool book. I’ll try to get to it soon.
I’d like to check out that book too. I’ve briefly looked into the assembly of the bible, but while I used to think that Constantine essentially canonize the texts at the Council of Nicea, I couldn’t actually find anything to confirm that, and actually found some opinions that the canon had been established well before then…
… but I never actually found anything that seemed to speak in much detail about it, one way or the other, in way of confirming either position.
How were the books selected?
“Nate my gut feeling is that most of people who write apologetic books are not being deliberately deceitful. I tend to see them as victims of the application of extreme confirmation bias. I suppose what I mean is that most of them start with the presupposition that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and this informs the way they consider each issue.”
Hi Peter, this is one of those occasions where you and I can agree. I have never believed the Bible was inerrant, but if I did I would likely behave the same way. For it is quite logical. If I go to a cancer specialist and he tells me I have cancer, and I feel fine, I could trust my feelings (the evidence I have) but I would be more sensible to trust the doctor’s expertise against my feelings.
So if I really believed the Bible was inerrant, it would be logical to trust God in the same way. I just don’t believe what they believe. Not just because of some apparent errors in the Bible such as Nate has raised, but more broadly because it doesn’t appear to be inerrant and it doesn’t claim to be.
The interesting thing for me is this. Inerrancy is a doctrine that is used to keep people in the faith, but it is also a doctrine that helps people quit the faith. If christians stopped believing in inerrancy they’d be less impressed (or not impressed at all) by the arguments of sceptics.
unklee I tried looking at faith from the perspective of a non-inerrant Bible but just could not get it to work for me. I know some people can, Pete Enns who Nate mentions is one. Bishop Spong is another. But as for me, no.
Hey Nate. The previous commenters have all expressed much of my own thoughts so I don’t have too much to add. I can especially relate to the comments of Sabio and Peter.
Your style of writing in your response to your friend was really very patient and non-combative which is usually difficult to achieve when it comes to religious disagreements. I hope she responds in kind.
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