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My Doubts about the Son of God: A Blast from the Past

Here’s a post I made six years ago, when just starting to think about what I would do in my book How Jesus Became God, where I recount a rather emotional experience of starting to doubt my faith.

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When I attended Moody Bible Institute in the mid 1970s, every student was required, every semester, to do some kind of Christian ministry work.   Like all of my fellow students I was completely untrained and unqualified to do the things I did, but I think Moody believed in on-the-job training.   And so every student had to have one semester where, for maybe 2-3 hours one afternoon a week, they would engage in “door-to-door evangelism.”  That involved being transported to some neighborhood in Chicago, knocking on doors, trying to strike up a conversation, get into the homes, and convert people.  A fundamentalist version of the Mormon missionary thing, also carried out two-by-two.

One semester I was a late-night counselor on the Moody Christian radio station.  People would call up with questions about the Bible or with problems in their lives, and I would, well, give them all the answers.  I was all of 18.  One semester I was a chaplain one afternoon a week at Cook County Hospital.  Completely out of my depth with that one.

When I was a senior (it was a three year degree program), my roommate and I decided…

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Very Funny…
The Protestant Obsession with Origins

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Judith  March 16, 2019

    What a bonanza today – Saturday when you do not post. Still, some of us are always checking, it’s that good!

  2. Avatar
    Anton  March 16, 2019

    I dont disagree that there are problems in the bible. But have you never felt the existence of God outside the bible.

  3. epicurus
    epicurus  March 16, 2019

    I had similar experiences when I left fundamentalism and tried “liberal” Christianity for a few months. It seemed like selective cherry picking of verses they (liberals) liked, with no better reason to believe those verses than any other. Ultimately I left the whole system. It’s a shame there is not much out in the secular world to replace the sense of community and fellowship one finds in church. I still miss it many years later.

  4. Avatar
    Matt2239  March 16, 2019

    The implicit assumption is that if Jesus didn’t actually say it, then maybe it isn’t true. There are two billion people and six billion books all saying Jesus rose from the dead, and the story hasn’t changed in 2000 years. You might dispute that fact as improbable, but then you must also admit that Jesus and his apostles are the most improbable historical figures ever.

    • Avatar
      flcombs  March 17, 2019

      How many of the two billion people and six billion books are from verified eye witnesses? Should we subtract the billions of non-christians that say otherwise or only count one side? There are many ancient stories that are improbablee and about improbable people. Christians tend to ignore those for some reason. It appears most improbable the claims of Christians about a kind and loving God who wants to save people from what God himself is going to do to them. Apparently he doesn’t have the power to change the rules on his own, well at least not without a human sacrifice or something. People are supposed to believe in poorly and questionable stories including translation, from 2000 years ago. The standards used also validate conflicting religions. Wouldn’t a caring, kind and loving God as described do something for a reliable message to people today?

  5. Avatar
    fishician  March 16, 2019

    Oak Lawn! Not far from where I was born. One of the good things about my Christian experience was the nice people I knew, but one of the bad things, looking back, is that religion made them not as nice as they could have been. I mean, how can you fully relate to people that you think are reprobates because of their beliefs or lifestyle and you know they’re going to hell unless you can change their way of thought? You can’t just be a friend and care for them – you have to SAVE them! I have a hard time now building friendships because in my past each person was a project, not a friend.

  6. Avatar
    dwcriswell  March 16, 2019

    What happened to Pastor Goranson? Did you or do you ever hear from him?

  7. Avatar
    ksgm34  March 16, 2019

    So presumably you were a “strict Calvinist” at this point… did you ever struggle with that theology and the idea that God had predestined people to hell? Part of my struggle after losing faith involved worrying I had never been one of the ‘elect’ – did you struggle with similar fears?!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2019

      Yeah, I think most thinking Calvinists struggle with it on some levels. But if it’s God’s plan, it must be good….

  8. Avatar
    Oikonomos  March 16, 2019

    “The problem with Pastor Goranson was that he was not a strict Calvinist, and I didn’t trust anyone who didn’t subscribe to predestination.”

    This raises a question that I don’t think you’ve addressed before on the blog. I ran a quick search for “predestination” and also “election” and didn’t see anything along this line of thought. As an evangelical you were a Calvinist of some variety and must have felt that the New Testament had a fairly clear presentation of these ideas. While you can’t address the whole range of passages that could apply to this topic, how has your view of some of these passages changed over time as you’ve progressed as a historian, as well as shifted away from your old faith? To be more specific, as a historian, are Paul’s references to predestination in places like Romans 8:28-30, broadly speaking, “Calvinistic” or “Augustinian” in some sense? I’m not asking if he believed in a 16th century protestant theological doctrine or 5th century theology; rather, is there a similar notion of determinism at work in his thinking? It almost seems at times that Paul embraced a kind of paradox between free will and predestination.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2019

      I guess you’re right, I haven’t dealt with it. But I don’t think Paul at all had views that could be classified as Calvinist, Augustinian, or anything else based on much later theological and philosophical assumptions that he, as a good first century Jewish apocalypticist, simply didn’t share. The key is to see what *he* means in these kinds of passages, without importing later theological categories into them. Hard to do!

  9. Avatar
    godspell  March 16, 2019

    I know. It’s hard. When I started doubting Jesus’ divinity (which if I’m honest, was never as central to my worldview as it was for you), and told my father that I still believed in what Jesus said, but that he clearly didn’t think of himself as God, he was saddened that I’d ‘lost my faith.’

    I guess, to me, that’s never been what faith was about.

    So it was less of an adjustment. I was ready for it, and it was much less of a transition (your writing helped, but I was already most of the way there before I starting reading you).

    If anything, Christianity became more important to me afterwards, because I’d been drifting a bit, and I realized there was all this important stuff there I’d neglected, ideas I’d never really understood, because the very idea of Jesus’ divinity was obscuring them.

    We come at things from different directions. But as the priest in Rossellini’s “Rome: Open City” says, comforting a comrade in the resistance who is an atheist–“I believe that those who fight for justice and truth walk in the path of God and the paths of God are infinite.”

    THAT’s faith.

  10. Avatar
    doug  March 16, 2019

    When I could no longer believe in God, I never told my parents that. It would have made them feel bad (to them, devotion to God was the most important thing in life), and (I feared) they might have felt a little distant from me. I wish I could have talked with them about it without hurting them.

  11. Avatar
    roger  March 16, 2019

    If Jesus thinks new thoughts even about God’s purposes and his brain has been working for 2000 years aren’t we all agnostics? I enjoy the openness of possibilities

  12. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 16, 2019

    I’ve heard mythicists claim that the entire Testimonium Flavianum is a later interpolation. Is there a specific reason you reject this, or is there just not enough evidence to claim it is?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2019

      I think they bear the burden of proof, and they haven’t borne it well enough. I also think it doesn’t matter a *bit* for deciding if Jesus existed or not. (It’d be like saying if a particular modern historian doesn’t mention Billy Graham than he probably didn’t exist….)

  13. Avatar
    Hon Wai  March 16, 2019

    Do you still retain good friendship with any fundamentalist friend/ mentor/ mentee/ convert from your Christian days?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2019

      A couple of friends. But we’re not close any more. We move in completely different circles.

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 16, 2019

    As always, your very best blogs, by far, it’s not even a close call, are the ones where you mix your personal journey with your scholarship.

  15. Avatar
    JR  March 16, 2019

    I read this post some years ago and it still moves me. Lots of what you say resonates with my own experience. Looking back and cringing slightly at the responsibility I had as a Christian student leader, the fond memories of fun times at a really great church, and feeling guilty for how my loss of faith affected others.

  16. Avatar
    Naifeh  March 16, 2019

    Thank you for this post. It helps. I had something of a similar experience which motivated me to change directions with my education and advocation.

  17. Avatar
    forthfading  March 16, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    This post has me thinking of the many evangelical scholars who devote their life to apologetics. I am fans of several of these scholars and some are people you have known for a long time (Craig Evans, Dan Wallace, Mike Licona). I appreciate their passion and scholarship because it shows a different side and view of scholarship. Do you think that a critical look at the evidence can really ever lead someone to faith in Jesus as a savior without preconceived biases or loyalty? I know many people come to faith through “experiencing” Jesus then they become scholars. But has anyone really became a believer because they were truly convinced by the evidence? One may legitimately look at evidence presented at trial and think “oh, they are innocent” and someone else say “oh, guilty as can be”. Is that really possible with Jesus in your opinion? Have you ever known anyone in that boat?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2019

      No, I think the answer is absolutely not. Logic/reasoning in itself will never ever do it.

      8
      1
  18. Avatar
    chixter  March 17, 2019

    I can really sympathize with this story. We lost our daughter Katie, our only child 5 years ago to cancer at age 25. My wife while not religious, holds a strong belief in the basic Jesus theology of resurrection and heaven. After our devastating loss I am careful to never discuss theology with her. She is well aware that I am a Bart Ehrman fan as your books are all over our house. She feels my agnosticism will keep me from reuniting with Katie as well as her in the afterlife and is deeply saddened by it. I’ve never understood why she is so upset with me when she knew Katie was agnostic and did not buy into any religion years before my stepping away from Christianity. It does pain one to see someone they love saddened over the welfare of the soul.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2019

      I am so sorry to hear about your loss. It must be truly awful. Many happy thoughts are speeding your way. My view is that if there is a heaven, God is good enough to grant it to all his children, not just to those who happen to accept certain theological views (that most of the many billions of humans who have ever lived never held)

    • Avatar
      brenmcg  March 17, 2019

      Sorry for your loss, sympathies to you and your wife.

  19. Avatar
    brenmcg  March 17, 2019

    Do you think when the writers of the new testament used the word Lord in reference to Jesus they meant it in the same sense as how it was used in the septuagint, and that therefore they believed the Lord was God?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2019

      Lord is used lots of ways in the Septuagint, not simply in reference to God. It is used of human masters, for example, or as a term of respect. Context determines what it means in any given usage.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  March 17, 2019

        Yes but there’s a sense in both the old and new Testaments in which there is only on *true* Lord, who is God.

        Isn’t the “Lord” in say Mark 13 who “cuts short the end of days” this one true Lord and isn’t Jesus this lord?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 18, 2019

          For Christians, yes, Jesus is certainly ‘Lord” in a divine sense. But not every use of “Lord” in the Bible means that. Look at Psalm 110:1 “The Lord said to my Lord….” God isn’t talking to himself. Yahweh (The Lord) is talking to the king (my Lord).

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  March 20, 2019

            But isnt the christian interpretation whats important here? Mark say may not have been aware of the different interpretations of “lord” in psalm 110 or possibly thought that they shouldnt be distinguished

          • Bart
            Bart  March 20, 2019

            I’d say that it’s important to know Mark’s view. And not assume it is Paul’s. Or John’s. Or Tertullian’s. Or Origen’s. Or Athanasius’s. Or Augustine’s. Etc. Etc. They all are differently nuanced, and often flat out *different*.

  20. Avatar
    dennislk1  March 17, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    When one walks away from one’s faith, as I had and you have, one realizes that fate does not care what religion one has. Many born-again Christians speak of reaching a low and finding hope through Jesus. When one has the income to “paper over” fate’s inconveniences (as I did and do and as I believe you do), and when one’s DNA is good enough that one is not sent down the path of disease or gambling or drugs or alcohol it is easier to keep from sinking to such lows (as I have not and I believe you have not); then one can continue without faith relatively reasonably in spite of fate’s inconveniences.

    Many people, however, reach the point of hopelessness and giving them hope may be the least expensive and most important thing one can give them. Hope is the only thing most pastors have to give someone who comes to them for help. And all pastors who truly care must have asked why their God is so miserly with His blessings and so cruel to those who love to do His will.

    I believe the pastor’s tears came because you struck to close to his doubts, for how a person can be a pastor all their lives with only today’s understanding of Jesus and the God of Abraham and also keep their faith is beyond me.

    But the pastor should have answered you as I will answer you, “ Bart, it doesn’t matter if Jesus said it. It only matters that it is saying what is true.” I believe it is saying what is true. For the book of John seems to have been written to provide the understanding that was missing in the first three Gospels and Revelation is also attributed to John. For example, the words “born again” are only found in John and Peter. But one must connect the dots.

    Even though I had lost my faith (I have it again), during that time I still tried to live by Jesus teachings concerning the treatment of my fellow man because I never had trouble believing the moral truth of those teachings. Therefore my questions (if they are not too personal) are: Do you ever just read the Bible for the pleasure of reading those moral teachings again? And: What would you say keeps you on the “straight and narrow” concerning your desire to do acts of goodness for your fellow man?

    Thank you for your blog.

    Dennis Keister

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