**Note: This exercise is undertaken as an hypothetical. I do not believe in the existence of an afterlife as defined in the New Testament (Heaven & Hell). But because evangelical Christians believe it to be true, we will treat it as such for the purpose of evaluating pertinent biblical data.
Introduction: A reversal of faith
The path to truth is paved with knowledge
It is easy to become a (evangelical) Christian but almost impossible to stop being one.
An evangelical once challenged me to persuade him, on the spot, why the Bible was not the word of God. I remember feeling overwhelmed and anxious with where to start and what to say. I have reflected on that moment many times and wished I would have said something different. Instead I tried to barrage him with as much information as I could in the hope his confidence in the Bible would eventually collapse under the weight of evidence. It did not.
My research might be compared to creating a thousand piece puzzle of Jesus over a period of several decades. Trying to convey to someone what it looks like by showing them a few isolated pieces is futile. All the pieces must be carefully fitted together and seen in context to reveal the finished product.
The challenge is getting evangelicals to willingly suspend their faith, wade through the immense amount of data (“pieces”) necessary and make an informed intelligent decision that might undo their faith. I am asking them to invest a huge amount of time and energy in questioning and perhaps rejecting their faith. A faith that provides peace, comfort, security, purpose, joy, guidance and most of all a place in heaven. It is a monumental task for someone to relinquish hope like committing spiritual suicide.
I look at my work as navigational. In the beginning I had no idea where this adventure would take me. All I was interested in was following the evidence wherever it led. My process involved continually testing, revising and re-testing my hypothesis until it was cogent. All the pieces had to fit together.
It has taken an entire life of tireless commitment and immense sacrifice to find the answers concerning Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. It has been an obsession that has consumed my days and nights often leaving me emotionally and mentally drained. It has taken its toll on countless relationship as well.
Were it not for a strong theological foundation, albeit evangelical, I would never have been able to finish. I relied heavily on the tools and skills I had acquired to keep “digging” until I uncovered the bare facts.
It is a cliche to say, “Ignorance is bliss,” but this is never truer than when it comes to evangelicalism. For a faith that prides itself on being biblio-centric it is surprisingly not. Evangelicals are notorious for skimming the pages of the Bible looking for verses to feed their souls like an owl searching for mice. In depth, objective, critical biblical analysis is never undertaken because inerrancy prevents it. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you especially if you think it’s God’s.
The Bible is a collection of religious propaganda. It is dangerous when someone places confidence in any literature that has not been thoroughly vetted. Taking the Bible “at its word” as being divinely inspired because its writers claim to be is not acceptable. It is intellectually irresponsible. These men were sincere and deeply devoted but that does not make them right. It is imperative the Bible be subjected to rigorous, critical scrutiny to determine its credibility as incontestable absolute truth.
Reading the Bible through the lens of faith obscures its meaning. Building a theological system with a Christian presupposition of inerrancy is baseless. It is backwards logic. Facts must determine faith. Faith cannot be used to invent facts.
In a “perfect” world, every person who wants to become a Christian would first take courses exploring the many critical literary issues surrounding biblical authority. Data would be presented from both a Christian (existence of miracles) and nonChristian (scientific) perspective and both hypotheses vigorously tested. Then, once all the information has been analyzed, a reasonable decision could be made.
However there would be these conditions. Interested persons must be mentally and emotionally stable, physically healthy, educated, employed, without drug or substance abuse issues, not having recently lost a friend or close family member, not in financial distress, depressed and over twenty-one years of age. In short, the desperate, needy or vulnerable would not qualify.
Obviously, such restrictions would be strenuously resisted because religions like Christianity primarily attract and target such persons. The difference is Christians think they are doing people a tremendous service by saving their souls and providing for their spiritual needs on earth. Christianity has always been an opportunistic religion preying on societies most easily exploitable.
If lack of knowledge is one of the main obstacles to overcome in hopes of uncovering the true meaning of the Bible then fear is even greater. Nothing retards biblical objectivity like the threat of eternal damnation and the promise of a heavenly utopia for believers. Evangelicals are unlikely to acknowledge this because this fear has been subverted by hope. A future blissful afterlife is evangelicalism’s single greatest prize and one vehemently defended.
The third obstacle to overcome is experientialism which we will define as, “An intimate encounter with God/Jesus/The Holy Spirit that is spiritually affirming.” Nothing is more satisfying to an evangelical than his or her personal experience with God. One need nothing else to feed their soul than a moment in the presence of God. A walk in the forest, meditation, a hymn, sermon or song, a Bible verse or prayer can be spiritually nourishing. It has the added benefit of validating the source —the Bible.
Circular reasoning is using one thing to prove another which is itself validated by the thing it is proving, and so on. For evangelicals, the Bible is inerrant or infallible because its authors claim to be writing under the influence of God’s spirit. Its teachings generate a living faith which in turn substantiates its divine nature as the prophetic (inspired) word of God. It is a vicious cycle of false attestation.
Evangelicalism is and has always been rooted in emotionalism which was considered more authentic than mere intellectual validation. Interestingly, the catalyst for American evangelicalism was the conviction of those who thought intellectual allegiance to the central tenets of Christianity was insufficient for salvation without an assurance of faith. Unless one was able to attest to a specific conversion experience typically marked by feelings of divine consolation, their salvation was questionable regardless of how theologically sound they were.
Ironically, today’s evangelicals require a mere profession of faith for conversion. The acknowledgment of a few basic teachings is considered sufficient for salvation. Evangelical churches are littered with unwitting “heretics” who lack understanding regarding central Christian tenets like the nature of Jesus, the Trinity, salvation or the Holy Spirit. A personal emotional conversion experience supersedes the need for doctrinal orthodoxy.
Prisons of the mind: The ideological wall that surrounds evangelicalism
An ineffable spiritual experience bolstered by a misguided view of the Bible often overrides rational opposition no matter how compelling. The New Testament repeatedly implores believers to separate and distance themselves from the world and its sinful desires and practices. They are to be “salt” and “light.” Some evangelicals describe this as “being in the world but not of the world.”
At the core of this thinking is a strict dualistic view of reality. A supernatural spiritual world that overlays the physical world. A Christian is enjoined to recognize the sinful world and its evil desires and the unseen world of Satan who controls it. A follower of Jesus is to resist the temptations of this world and pursue heavenly riches. These characteristically are what God values such as righteousness and justice. Furthermore, evangelicals are taught to be septics of the nonChristian world. This breeds a rabid distrust in science, secular education, liberal media and areas of government not occupied by Christians.
Evangelicals hide behind this impenetrable ideological wall whenever they feel their faith is being attacked or threatened. Here their belief system is constantly reinforced by like-minded believers and a steady diet of indoctrination through sermons, books, radio programs and other sources. Their leaders constantly stoke the flames of paranoia and fear among evangelicals to generate political activism. Evangelicals are psychologically isolated and insulated from the external forces that seek to attack their faith. How is anything allowed to enter which might disrupt this faith?
The only way in is through the door of doubt which must be opened from the inside.
Doubt is a duplicitous word in evangelical circles. A believer is encouraged to doubt as a means to strengthen their faith not abandon it. Implied is a sincere and honest inquiry that will inevitably deepen one’s commitment. Really it is an exercise in rationalizing doubts to bolster faith not weaken it. A believer must have a reason to question his or her faith before beginning to seriously challenge its authenticity.
The end of my faith
I was never more certain of my evangelical faith then when I knew the least about it. Every day I gained more knowledge, I also acquired more questions. I mistakenly thought eventually all would be resolved. In the end, so many biblical incongruences, contradictions and implausibilities led to the erosion my faith.
In my final year of seminary, my evangelical faith was in tatters. Any thoughts of going into ministry would have to be delayed until I resolved these uncertainties. I would begin an earnest exploration of what it meant to be a first century Christian.
At this point in my Christian experience I was certain of two things, or at least I thought I was. First, evangelicalism was fraught with theological, historical and logical problems which rendered it a misrepresentation of biblical Christianity. Second, Jesus was alive and well living in my heart. Apart from him, everything else was excess baggage to be left behind if necessary.
I knew I had to deconstruct and rebuild my faith from the foundation (Jesus) up. Knowing who Jesus was gave me the confidence to question everything else in order to find the truth. I effectively let down my faith guard and began a rigorous examination of the Bible, the Church Fathers and the history of Christianity, particularly evangelicalism.
My journey has been painstakingly long. I have paid the price in so many ways for this undertaking. My research has been my “career” though it has only thus far brought intellectual satisfaction. I have also witnessed the pain in those closest to me who have been affected by my suffering. Words cannot begin to cover the toll my leaving the faith has taken on countless relationships both evangelical and non evangelicals alike.
It took years adjusting to being in the secular world. A world I had viewed with disdain for fifteen years. Suddenly, the spiritual world in which I had invested everything disappeared. I had to re-insert myself and function in a society that had become foreign to me. How was I to interact with non Christians who I used to look upon with suspicion? What would my role be now that I realized this life was the only life? Everything changed and I felt fearful of my future.
As previously mentioned, it is my hope this work serves as a roadmap for those seeking a way out of evangelicalism. I have chartered my course in the hope others might take the same path. Or perhaps it may sow some seeds of doubt that one day may grow.
Evangelicalism is an ideology that ensnares and entangles its prey. Most succumb and remain within its grip though some look for intellectual and emotional freedom outside its grasp. My own departure was not sudden and dramatic but a slow and steady erosion. One day I reached a tipping point when I knew it was over. Up to that time, I thought I would discover something that would ruin my theory and force me back into the fold.
The evidence against the inerrancy or divine authority of the Bible is overwhelming to a rational mind unfettered by faith. At the same time, if you begin with the conviction in the supernatural, you can defend the Bible from the most logically sound and scientifically based assault. Evangelicals will always find a way to rationalize away whatever threatens their belief system.
If nothing else, my work might plant a seed of doubt that one day may blossom into a full rejection of one’s evangelical or Christian faith. What falls on deaf ears today may find receptivity tomorrow. I would be the first to admit, I was not ready to listen early in my Christian experience. Eventually I could not deny my own mental capabilities. I had to put confidence in myself to be able to differentiate fact from fiction.
Our we ready for a paradigm shift?
It is time to stop treating the Bible as a sacred heavenly document but rather a dangerous collection of religious propaganda. The Bible has been used and is being used to justify immoral behavior by its adherents. It is the product of ancient pre-scientific religiously addled men. It contains superstitions and fantasies scattered among historical facts. It has immense literary value but it is not fit to occupy a prominent place in politics, the legal system, education or people’s lives. Any worth it once had in society has long been spent.
I would like to believe we are approaching a paradigm shift in the way we look at the Bible. During my years of monitoring evangelicalism, I have observed a lot of “movement” within. It is strange evangelicals can be divided on almost every conceivable issue, large and small, and all still “think” they are being faithful to God and His Word. Issues such as homosexuality, female leadership, abortion, gun control, Donald Trump, premarital sex, global stewardship, Israel and the Middle East, baptism, Jesus, salvation, divorce, feminism, marijuana, capital punishment, immigration, welfare, prison reform, evolution, higher education, tongues, inerrancy, vaccinations and so on can find disagreement even in the same church let alone across denominational divides. How can the Holy Spirit be so unclear on so many topics?
My point is evangelicals are able to accommodate just about any belief they want to. There is no central authority or creedal affiliation to keep believers in check. The Bible does not interpret itself so believers are free to “follow the leading of the spirit” and justify any pet vice, prejudice or liberty. Subjectivism reigns when it comes to an experience driven faith.
The problem with this is evangelicals never have to leave or question the faith. There is always another church or group of evangelicals who will share your beliefs. The only way to topple Christianity in all its permutations is by removing its central pillar — the resurrection of Jesus.
I make no apologies for making this my primary target when it comes to biblical authority. Without a risen Savior there is no Christianity. It is here we direct our focus and apply the most rigorous investigation. Our approach is three pronged: Prophetic validity, internal consistency and logical plausibility.
First, does the Hebrew text unequivocally support Christian claims about Jesus’ death and resurrection? Second, do the four gospel accounts provide internal cohesiveness and absolute compatibility in details concerning Jesus’ resurrection? Third, when examined, do the “facts” surrounding the resurrection seem logically plausible?
It is embarrassing now to think how unreceptive I was to simply trusting my own rational instincts instead of subverting them to biblical authority. I was in intellectual denial. Every time a doubt arose, I attributed it either to ignorance or sinful prides inclination to oppose God. We cannot trust our ability to reason because it is fallible and God’s word is infallible. When in doubt, the Bible is always right.
The two brains of evangelicals
Evangelicals are masters at mental compartmentalization. They choose when to be reasonable and when not to be. They can be successful in academic, business, science or any other field, but where the legitimacy of their faith is involved, they unabashedly default to irrationality and unreasonableness. Evangelicals occupy positions throughout society and depend on their cognitive ability except when it comes to analyzing their faith.
Ironically, they will rationally dissect scientific theories and philosophical arguments looking for weaknesses and inconsistencies. But when it comes to shining the same penetrating light of scrutiny on themselves, they resort to blind faith.
It is truly remarkable an evangelical can display all the signs of sophisticated reasoning and intelligence one moment, and in the next, talk about the parting of a sea, a talking donkey, fire from heaven, a man being swallowed by a giant fish, water being turned into wine, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, loaves and fish being multiplied, the lame walking and a man being raised from the dead with a straight face in the twenty-first century. Such lunacy must end and those who embrace it be prevented from infecting their children with fantastical thinking.
The Jesus you don’t know
If we were able to transport ourselves back to the first century, we would discover the real Jesus. He was a common Israelite of modest means who lived in Galilee. There he heard of a Judean prophet named John the Baptist who preached the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God and its attending judgment on all wickedness. He offered a baptism of repentance for those Israelites seeking forgiveness and cleansing.
Jesus made the sixty mile journey south to Jerusalem to find John and was baptized. It had a profound effect on him leading to an epiphany; whereby, he felt God was calling him to preach the gospel of the kingdom as his special prophet. Soon circumstances forced him to return to Galilee to continue his ministry where he selected twelve disciples to assist him.
Jesus spent the next year mostly in Galilee teaching, preaching and healing, although he did attend the yearly festivals in Jerusalem. During what would be his last visit, he and his Galilean disciples arrived for Passover to find the holy city swollen with pilgrims and pulsating with religious fervor. He began to proclaim the gospel. Soon he was surrounded with crowds of Israelites who longed for deliverance from beneath Rome’s imperious thumb.
Among those in attendance were the more politically inclined zealots who saw Jesus as a possible liberator. They nominated him, “King of the Judeans,” a title he welcomed as endorsed by God. Unbeknownst to Jesus, Jerusalem’s religious elite were eyeing him with suspicion. They understood the potential cost of challenging Rome’s political stability and Caesar’s authority. By bribing one of Jesus’ own disciples, they were able to locate and arrest Jesus during the night to avoid possible retaliation from his daytime supporters.
Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin, the highest court in the land for Jews. It was their intention to force Jesus to rescind his claim. They knew if his popularity continued to grow, Rome would intercede and quash any possible rebellion swiftly and completely. Their city, the temple, religious freedom and the lives of many Israelites would be lost. Jesus had to be stopped.
In Jesus’ mind, these events conspired to reinforce his kingly role not dissuade him. Everything was building toward a glorious crescendo when he would serve as Israel’s ruler. He steadfastly refused to renounce his claim to the throne certain Yahweh would vindicate him.
Initially Pontus Pilate, the governor of Judea, was unwilling to execute Jesus at the request of the Jewish leaders. So far he had not violated Roman law. However, when they revealed Jesus and his followers would likely rally others and close the city in defiance of Caesar, he had no choice but to crucify Jesus for sedition. Pilate preferred to stop a rebellion before it started than risk trying to quash one already begun.
On the cross, a disillusioned Jesus wondered when God would intervene. As he sensed death’s approach, he uttered that which betrayed the deep anguish of his soul, “My God, my God. Why have you abandoned me?” He echoed the words spoken by David one thousand years earlier when surrounded by his enemies and facing certain death. David’s prayers were heard, yet tragicall, Jesus’ would not be. He had become the victim of his own popularity.
Jesus died that day and with him the hopes of many for a restored Israel. Those who had previously hailed him as their king quickly dissolved into the crowds fearing further Roman retaliation. As for Jesus’ closest disciples, most returned to Galilee to resume their lives as fishermen. A handful of women who had supported him remained behind to embalm his body for permanent burial after the Sabbath. This should have been the end of the story meriting perhaps a footnote in Jewish history. Instead, it was the end of the beginning of what would become the biggest religion the world would see.
Mary, the true Savior of Christianity
If a woman named Mary from Magdala in Galilee had not visited Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body with spices, Christianity would not exist. These beginnings, however, are shrouded in intrigue and mystery, mostly involving a woman of questionable mental stability.
Christian tradition suggests Mary had been exorcised of seven demons by Jesus resulting in undying devotion to her master. If Mary underwent a psychiatric assessment today, she would likely be considered delusional. Unless one believes demons can literally inhabit and control a person, Mary was sick. Her ability to differentiate between reality and fantasy was severely impaired. What she thought she saw or heard was only in her mind though it was as real as if it were factual.
Mary reported to the other disciples her findings. The empty tomb was the genesis of her experience. Either the body was stolen or it walked out on its own were the only options. The gospel records suggest she entertained the first one before a mystical encounter with an angel prompted her to believe the second option. With this now planted in her fecund imagination, it would not be long before her deepest wishes were confirmed.
It only takes one person certain of something to pass on their conviction to others for a story to gain traction and spread as true. Mary was seen as a credible source to other followers of Jesus. They were not qualified to question her mental state. They would take her testimony as factual which would in turn prompt others to seek the same experience. The real test came when Jesus’ core disciples returned to Jerusalem for Pentecost and were confronted with the resurrection story.
We can assume based on the four gospels they had a collective resurrection experience though some doubted. Nothing is more damaging to the believability of the literal resurrection than the fact his closest most trusted disciples having allegedly been made aware of his promised resurrection did not believe it. On the other hand, if the nature of the risen Jesus was ethereal, it makes perfect sense but undermines its historicity as a real event. Again, we see the power of spiritual or mystical experience as indisputable proof to that individual as well as generating a similar experience in others. In this regard, it was contagious among his followers.
The story of Jesus’ resurrection was not a guarantee it would last. Jesus still needed to function in his messianic role to legitimize the story. He had failed the first time in Jerusalem while on earth. Now it fell upon him to appear and inaugurate the kingdom to satisfy Jewish expectations. When he could not be found, it was suggested he had ascended to heaven and would soon return in glorious power. Time passed with no sign of his appearance.
Forty years later when the Jewish revolt led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the profaning of the Temple, Christian leaders again promised his return was imminent. It seemed apparent to most Israelites if there ever was a time for God to restore the land, it was now. For many Jewish Christians, if Jesus didn’t return now, he was not returning at all. This was the final curtain call for Jewish Christianity signaling its impending death. Meanwhile, a converted Pharisee named Paul had introduced his own version of Christianity decades earlier which was destined to survive and thrive.
Paul’s contribution to Christianity in many ways eclipsed Jesus. Jesus would have been appalled at Paul’s mishandling of the ancient traditions. The resistance to Paul’s efforts by Jesus’ followers and the confrontation between him and Peter reflects the prevailing attitude towards Gentiles who had no part in the ancient promises. The only exception was proselytization involving circumcision which the Jerusalem Council waved. Paul took it one giant step forward by exempting Gentiles from any obligation to the Mosaic Law. In doing so, he violated the sacred covenant.
Jesus, the king without a throne
Christians conveniently forget, Jesus’ legitimacy as Messiah hinged on him acting like a messiah. He strode into Jerusalem on a donkey to publicly declare himself king only to fail in that role.
Jesus repeated inability to institute the earthly kingdom of God was undeniable proof to Israelites he was a messianic pretender. Two thousand years of Christian history with only a scant number of messianic Jews attests to this fact. Gentile Christians had little interest in the Judaistic roots of Christianity nor were they bound by expectations of a literal kingdom. In fact, the spiritual nature of Christianity coupled with whole scale Jewish rejection of Jesus made it easy abandon all allegiances to Judaism. Gentile Christianity was free to flourish as its own independent unique branch. It celebrated its break from its Jewish parentage as having replaced Israel.
Freedom from its Judaistic roots was no guarantee of survival. Beset by internal heresies (heterodoxy) and rocked by external attacks from competing Greco-Roman religions and philosophies threatened to destroy this fledgling faith. Christianity needed another miracle and it got one from Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.
Christians consider Constantine’s heavenly vision that led to the “Edict of Milan” (313AD) as God ordained. This effectively protected Christianity and gave it the opportunity to consolidate its beliefs and establish orthodoxy. Later Emperor Theodosius’ would grant official status to Christianity via the “Edict of Thessalonica,” (380AD) giving it a respectability it had never known. Together the actions of these men would ensure Christianity’s survival.
Read the Bible with your head not your heart