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Changing Your Mind. Or Not.

Two things have happened to me this week that have made me think rather intensely about the path I’ve taken in life, and how radically it has swerved from the paths of others who were like me at the age of 20.   I emphasize “who were like me.”   The reality is that the path I was on already at 20 was (now I see) extremely weird, and to outsiders looks more than a little bizarre.   I was a hard-core evangelical Christian dedicated to ministry for the sake of the gospel.   Not exactly what most 20-year olds (including any of my many high school friends) were doing at the time.  If ever I want a conversation-stopper at a cocktail party, all I need do is say something about my past.

Still, given that as my starting point, what happened next is even more highly unusual.  And I was abruptly reminded it of it this week, twice.   First, on Monday I had a radio/podcast debate here in London on “Premier Christian Radio” (it is the leading Christian radio station in England) (not that it has a lot of competition, but it is indeed a high class operation) with another scholar of the New Testament, Peter Williams, one of the world’s experts on ancient Syriac as it relates to the Bible (both OT and NT), former professor at the University of Aberdeen and current head of Tyndale House in Cambridge: http://legacy.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/peter-williams. Peter is the author of Can We Trust the Gospels? and C S Lewis vs the New Atheists.

I have known Pete for years; he is a committed evangelical Christian with a view of the infallibility of the Bible.  Our debate was on the question of whether the Gospels are historically reliable (a topic of frequent recurrence on this blog, obviously) (some bloggers may think “interminable” recurrence).  He thinks there is not a single mistake in the Gospels, of any kind.  I think there are.  You’ve heard this kind of debate before, so I won’t be recounting the ins and outs (although they were quite different from those you’ve seen before; still, it won’t matter for this post).

The second thing that happened is that I received a Facebook post from a former friend (I emphasize “former” since we apparently are no longer friendly) and classmate of mine from my Moody Bible Institute days (mid 70s), in which he lambasted the fellow alumni from my graduating class for holding me in any kind of esteem.   The implication of his lambast was that I’m the enemy of the truth and no one should respect me or my views.   I haven’t talked with this fellow for over 40 years, but last I knew we were friends, on the same floor in the dorm and the same basketball team.  OK, I couldn’t hit a jump shot, but still, is that reason to be upset four decades later?

In any event, these two events made me think hard about one issue in particular, one that I keep coming back to in my head, in my life, and, occasionally, on this blog:  why is it that some people are willing to change their minds about what they hold most dear and important in their lives and other people retain their same views, come hell or high water?    Why do some people explore options and think about whether they were originally “right” or not (about religion, personal ethics, social issues, politics, etc.), and other people cling tenaciously to the views they were given when they were 14 years old?  It’s an interesting question.

Because I changed my views on something near and dear to me and my then-friends, I’m a persona non grata in the circles I used to run around in.  And granted, I have zero desire (OK, far less than zero) to run around in them now.   But I don’t feel any animosity toward my former friends, or think they’re going to roast in hell because of their views, and wish that torment would begin sooner than later.  I understand why they do (toward me), but it’s sad and disheartening.

Let me be clear, my (current) scholar-friend Peter Williams and I are on very good terms (after our debate he bought me lunch and we had a lovely talk about his current research projects): there’s no animosity there or wish for me to speed the process of passing off my mortal coil, at all.   Though I bet if you press him he would regretfully inform you that I probably will be roasting in hell.  Still, that’s OK; it’s what he thinks.

What I’m more interested in is why I would have changed my mind and others like him absolutely don’t.  Even scholars.  Their views significantly deepen, become more sophisticated, more nuanced – but the views don’t change.  (My sense of my former classmates at Moody – at least the ones I hear about – is that their views don’t even deepen or grow more sophisticated; they literally think pretty much the same thing as they did when they were mid-teenagers, only now with more conviction and passion).

The reason I find the whole matter sad is almost entirely personal (I guess sadness by definition is).   My former evangelical friends and current evangelical debate partners think I’m an enemy of the truth, when I’ve spent almost my entire weird journey trying to come to the truth.  And so far as I can tell, they haven’t.   I’m not trying to be ungenerous, but it does seem to me to be the reality.

I’ll try to put it in the most direct terms here:  how is it at all plausible, or humanly possible, that someone can question, explore, look into, consider the beliefs they were taught as a young child (in the home, in church, in … whatever context) and after 40 years of thinking about it decide that everything they were taught is absolutely right?  The views *they* were taught, out of the sixty trillion possible views out there, are absolutely right?  The problem with these particular views (of evangelical Christianity)  is that if they are indeed right, everyone else in the known universe is wrong and going to be tormented forever because of it.

I know most Christians don’t think this: I’m just talking about this particular type of Christian.  And they don’t seem to see how strange it is that they are right because they agree with what they were taught as young children.   Yes, they don’t see it that way.  They think they are right because they agree with the Bible which comes from God so they agree with God and I (and everyone else on the planet) disagree with God.  But the reality is that this is the view they were handed as young kids.

I realize these are very old questions.  When we were evangelicals we puzzled over the question of how God could punish people for eternity for not “accepting Christ” when they had never even heard of him.   Unfortunately, we concluded that we weren’t sure how he would do that, but we were pretty sure he would.

Most of the human race, of course, thinks the very idea is ludicrous.   But what I’m puzzled by is not *that*, but by the fact that thinking human beings (as opposed to non-thinking ones) can actually still subscribe to such nonsense.  And it’s a troubling idea to me precisely because those are the roots I come from.

This is not an issue for most blog members, but possibly for some.   I have a few more reflections on it – specifically with respect to my debate – that I think I’ll reflect on in the next post.  (I’ll get back to the authorship of the letter of James!  But for now this is on my mind.)

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Is History a Four-Letter Word?
Why Was the World Created in 4004 BC?



  1. vergari
    vergari  July 22, 2019

    “I’ll try to put it in the most direct terms here: how is it at all plausible, or humanly possible, that someone can question, explore, look into, consider the beliefs they were taught as a young child (in the home, in church, in … whatever context) and after 40 years of thinking about it decide that everything they were taught is absolutely right?”

    I hope Bart can appreciate that this is a form of circular reasoning, to wit: how is it possible that someone can spend years of studying only to find answers in what they were originally taught? Bart may be ultimate correct that he is right and his intellectual adversaries are wrong on the facts. But this line of argument/logic presupposes that the original teaching was wrong.

    Assuming that acquired knowledge will lead to a better understanding of the truth than “the original teaching” makes considerable sense in approaching subjects that have not been well plowed. For example, one would readily imagine that studying the production process for a movie released in 2019 will lead to a more accurate understanding of that process than merely relying on one early source for what happened.

    But, on the flip side, one could study about World War II for entire lifetime and yet retain the basic core facts of that war from its original teaching, i.e., that Hitler was a wild anti-Semite, that England and France declared War on Germany after the invasion of Poland, that Germany subsequently invaded the Soviet Union, that the U.S. entered the War after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, that the Western Front in Europe changed dramatically with the invasion of Normandy, that the British, Soviets and Americans divided the conquered Germany, and that the Japanese surrendered shortly after two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese mainland.

    No matter how much time one devotes to studying about World War II, those core facts — which can be learned from an early childhood “original teaching” — will not change. Indeed, if a revisionist attempted to convince someone that his “decades of study” had led him to a belief that those core facts were wrong, established historians would label that person a crank.

    So, Bart may be right about the NT, and his intellectual adversaries may be wrong. But it’s not because he changed his mind over time and they didn’t.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      I’m just sayin’ that if three kids are taught different things (say, about God and the nature of the world and science etc.) in their childhoods in Beirut or Tibet or Siberia, and then they look into it when they’re older, and all conclude they have been right their entire lives — well, it seems implausible to me they in fact *have* been right all along.

  2. Avatar
    madmargie  July 22, 2019

    About 45 years ago, I decided there were many things I could not believe about the bible and in the bible. I started studying in earnest authors like you…those whose education brought them to doubt traditional Christianity. I gave up a belief in a heaven and a hell at that time. And about 90% of my former belief system. I do believe in a god.but only as a spirit that might try to help us decide the path to take as we go through our lives….

    Other then that, I asked myself what I could still believe and found that I could believe Jesus lived and taught some very valuable theology…. mostly about love and respect for others and for creation.. Everything else is up for grabs. I believe Jesus was a human that was crucified for teaching things the Romans didn’t like and they thought he was trying to overthrow their kingdom because he was teaching about God’s kingdom.

    I believe those that cannot bring themselves to give up their childlike belief systems are just stuck and searching for security.
    I am 83 and will be 84 in December. I don’t need traditional religion to give me security.

  3. Avatar
    Hon Wai  July 24, 2019

    “I bet if you press him he would regretfully inform you that I probably will be roasting in hell.”
    As a sola scriptura Christian, Peter William shouldn’t inform us thus, because roasting in hell for an eternity for people with the wrong religious views (as opposed to truly wicked people referred in the gospels deserving gehenna) is not in the Bible. Least he harbours any doubt, Peter needs to read Bart’s forthcoming book on the subject!
    By the way, British evangelicals are less fundamentalist than their American counterparts. Many self-identified British evangelicals do not have firm views on the post-mortem fate of nonbelievers.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2019

      He could appeal to the story of Lazarus and the rich man, or the Lake of Fire in Revelation. That’s true of many British evangelicals, but my sense is that they (the many) do not think that the Bible can’t have any errors of any kind in it. Or do they?

      • Avatar
        Hon Wai  July 26, 2019

        Evangelicals like Peter should be receptive to your interpretation of Lazarus and the Rich Man, whereby the latter ended up in hell because he hasn’t used his wealth in order to help those who were poor, a sin Peter surely cannot accuse Bart of committing. Prima facie, the lake of fire in Revelation is reserved for truly wicked people and worshippers of the Beast.
        British evangelical biblical scholars and theologians probably take an attitude to the Bible similar to Michael Licona – they would affirm inerrancy, but do not think evangelicalism depends on it, and are open to use of hyperbole in the Bible (e.g. Licona’s treatment of the resurrected saints in Matthew – an approach that have cost his former job at Southern Evangelical Seminary).

        • Bart
          Bart  July 28, 2019

          Mike at least admits that the story of the zombies coming out of their tombs in Matthew 27 is not historical.

  4. Avatar
    Hngerhman  July 25, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    Do you have any upcoming speaking engagements in the near future? Sorry to bug you direct – your site lists nothing after the recent Greece/Turkey trip.


  5. Avatar
    AJ0826  July 30, 2019

    I am a conservative reformed Baptist who loves you Bart, and I empathize with your journey. I have had a very, very long road to get to where I am now. Countless hours of study, conversing with scholars about different questions I had, etc. I just want to believe what is true, and I believe the Christian worldview makes the most sense. Even though there are questions that will probably always remain unanswered, don’t you think the same can be said about any other worldview? So just because you aren’t a Christian anymore doesn’t mean that you lost faith – it just means that you are placing your faith somewhere else. But that “somewhere else”, the atheistic/agnostic worldview, still has many questions that will probably always remain unanswered.

  6. Avatar
    Loring  August 27, 2019

    Yes, I’m very late to this post, but am trying to catch up. This one is really interesting and personal, so I’d like to comment.

    My spiritual journey is very similar to Bart’s. I got “saved” when I was 20 in 1974 in a Southern Baptist Church. I left the SBC because I was influenced to think that they were “too liberal” (let that sink in). From 75-78 I was a student at Baptist Bible College of PA. I was an ardent fundamentalist, inerrantist, recent creationist, you get the idea. From 78-84 I worked on my ThM from Grace Theo Sem in Indiana, where among other classes, I learned about biblical creationism from John Whitcomb himself.

    By the time I left Grace, however, I was no longer a fundamentalist. Something happened that broke the “spell” of fundamentalism. I went on to be an evangelical, later a liberal Christian, then in 1995 I left ministry and returned to my atheist roots. But how did this happen?

    About 20 years ago, I wrote a “spiritual autobiography” in which I tried to answer how I broke the “spell” and why my former fundamentalist friends had not. I believe it boiled down to epistemology. When you think the Bible is inerrant, it is the source of all knowledge and trumps everything else.. Even though I had been taught how to refute challenges to inerrancy, there were a series of events in my life that worked together to create a crack in that belief. I won’t go into all of it, but a key event was reading Stephen Davis’ book “Debate about the Bible: Inerrancy vs Infallibility” the summer before I graduated. He clearly demonstrated that the Bible is SELF-contradictory in ways that can’t be explained away. At least, it was clear to me. But maybe that’s because I had had previous incidents that prepared me for it.

    As I started my final semester, I no longer believed in inerrancy–at a school that viewed it an essential belief! I kept my mouth shut and got my degree. Once inerrancy was broken, other concepts began to fall. Within months of graduating, I read a book that convinced me that creationism was wrong, and the scientists were right. After that, one question led to another and another–as described above.

    Arguing with believers about anything other than epistemology is a waste of time. It’s the key.

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