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Pastor Goranson, the Son of God, and I: A Blast From the Past


A former colleague of mine contacted me last week — not a colleague from any of my teaching positions, but a colleague in ministry from forty years ago when I was the Youth Pastor at Trinity Covenant Church in Oak Lawn, Illinois.  I’ve been reminiscing about those days, and I remembered an event connected with that church that I talked about in my book How Jesus Became God, involving a moment when my doubts about the Christian faith were starting to take hold.  Here is a post that I made about it exactly four years ago today.


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 that we wanted to do our ministry in a church as youth pastors.   We were hooked up, through Moody, with…

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  1. Avatar
    JGonzalezGUS  March 14, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,
    The conversation in the car with Pastor Goranson is very moving. There may be more to the story, but, knowing only the shared part, could it be that his tears came not from hearing about your doubts but from HIS OWN doubts? I recall when I first admitted to myself that I didn’t believe anymore I felt sad, disappointed, and above all there was an overwhelming feeling of betrayal by the many people that had lied, unwittingly, to me.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      That wasn’t my impression. I think he was upset because he thought I really was losing my faith.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 14, 2017

    Very interesting. I recently had a similar riveting experience. I met with several young men who each had earned a master’s degree in New Testament and one had even earned a doctorate in New Testament. None of them could even start to answer what I consider to be rather basic questions:

    1. Who was the first to propose the current New Testament canon and when did he do this?

    2. What did John Mill do in the field of textual Biblical criticism?

    3. Can you describe some differences in the Gospel accounts of the empty tomb events? What do you make of these differences?

    4. What is our earliest text of the New Testament and about when was this text written?

    5. Have you ever read Schweitzer’s “The Quest of the Historical Jesus”? If so, what is his main thesis?

    6. Can you describe some differences in the two Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus? What do you make of these differences?

    7. Some scholars contend that First Timothy and Second Timothy were not written by Paul. Why do they contend this?

    I found it discouraging that even those with graduate New Testament degrees lack such basic knowledge and really seemed to have no interest in such basic knowledge.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      Wow. That’s unbelievable. I wonder what kind of program these “graduate” students actually went through. Not a top-tier one! It’s hard to believe!

  3. Avatar
    Silver  March 14, 2017

    When you said “But what if Jesus never said that?”, did you have a SPECIFIC reason to doubt John 14:6 or were you simply voicing GENERAL concerns about the reliability of what is written in the Bible?
    Also have you ever blogged about your earlier belief in predestination and what led you to change your mind?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      I had specific reasons for doubting that many of the things on Jesus’ lips in the Gospel of John in particular go back to the historical Jesus himself.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  March 14, 2017

    One Passover I was listening in on a couple of my cousins talking to the rabbi about the problem of theodicy (they didn’t use that term, but they were basically asking the rabbi why bad things happened to good people). The rabbi answered them with what is essentially the “God works in mysterious ways” answer. Hashem does everything for a reason. We may not know the reason; we may never know the reason, but Hashem knows the reason. I worked my way into the conversation and asked the rabbi, “What’s the difference between Hashem doing things in a seemingly random way, and things actually happening in a random way? If they look the same, wouldn’t it make sense to assume the simpler explanation, that everything really is just random?” Keep in mind that the rabbi knows that I’m an atheist, so he knows what I’m getting at. He responds, as if stating a fact, “Why, because the first explanation is true.” And that was it. That was his answer.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 14, 2017

    I guess we should all be careful, when talking with committed members of some religious denomination, to avoid saying things that might “shock” them. I’d love to ask a Catholic friend whether she and other Catholics she knows still believe Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the Gospels. But I’m not sure whether I’ll ever risk doing it.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 16, 2017

      The main reason not to say such things to such people is that the odds of it being accepted by them are so low. Otherwise, do we really want to hold back from stating what we think is true because it might shock someone? Really? It seems to me that the only consideration there is your intention: if you’re saying your piece in order to shock them, it’s probably better not to. If you want to say it in spite of the fact that someone might be shocked, for me, that would be unfortunate.

      • Avatar
        Rogers  March 21, 2017

        perhaps a rule of thumb might be if there is harm coming to someone based on or as some outcome/culmination of religious belief – then speaking forthrightly and addressing religious prepositions that are underlying the harmfulness would seem warranted

        yet if a person’s religious beliefs are not of that ilk, then confronting them intentionally with things that might by nature undermine their beliefs, well that is of a different shade of complexion altogether.

        The paster that Dr. Ehrman depicts sounds like a very decent man indeed per his personal life and life’s endeavor. What’s the point of seeking to upend that in some manner? I suppose most of all in the story that Bart relates, I am moved by the pastor’s compassion for Bart. Whether that is to be regarded as misplaced, well, isn’t that perhaps a different matter? What about the compassion the pastor held toward Bart as a person? Is that without any meaning?

        Is what we deem to be honest (or actually we are probably just talking about frankness) in all things all the time really so completely crucial? Is it a sure path to human harmany? Do we better the other person and do we better ourself?

        It would seem probably that each one of us could be found in error on some aspect of what we believe to be true. Is our ability to be perfect in correctness our true measure? Perhaps a place to start is even asking ourselves what it is about another human being that might bring us to have fond regard for them.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  March 21, 2017

          Not quite sure I spoke clearly enough. Not sure either how much you’re getting what I meant. Sure, we can ask ourselves “what it is about another human being that might bring us to have fond regard for them?” But we are complicated beings. I can admire the pastor’s compassion for Bart and still take issue with something he believes. Then again, I agree, one needs to ask if there is any point in sharing another point of view. When it comes to how to do that, I always try to keep in mind something we were taught in a therapy group on assertiveness–that one can be assertive without being aggressive and one may always ask for information. Works well in a relationship too. Rather than say, “Why the hell were you so moody yesterday?” one could ask “What were you feeling yesterday?” Many fundamentalists I’ve met have been wonderful people. I have also met racists who, aside from their racism, are nice people–good spouses, parents, generous, and active in their community. But, in my view, the belief that your way is the only way to God and that everyone else has an inferior spiritual relationship to God is just as bigoted as one who believes one is best off when white. So, the goodness in someone doesn’t cancel out the bad. An old man in Bali once said something like, “The point isn’t to be spiritual nor is the point to be clever; the point is to be complete.” I prefer to aspire to that in myself and in others.

  6. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  March 14, 2017

    Now you’ve really struck a chord! I certainly had such a day. I suspect a great many of us who grew up evangelical have.

  7. Avatar
    jhague  March 14, 2017

    And he told me to remember that Jesus had said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).

    Did he know that Jesus never actually said these words?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      That’s my point. He believed Jesus did and had never thought about doubting it.

  8. Avatar
    darren  March 14, 2017

    This is one of your more wistful posts. I can’t help but be nostalgic about the days when I believed priests were close to god, the pope communed with Jesus regularly and there was a lot of certainty when to came to morality and mortality. To learn is to suffer I suppose.

  9. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  March 14, 2017

    Bart, did you ever later (last week?) remind Pastor Goranson of that exchange in the car when tears came to his eyes and asked what lay behind the tears? What he was thinking?

  10. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 14, 2017

    Bart shared this story at the beginning of Chapter 3 in “How Jesus Became God.”

  11. Avatar
    doug  March 14, 2017

    In this post you said that “at Moody I learned all sorts of “proofs” that Jesus was God.” It would be fascinating to hear what those “proofs” were and what made them cease to be proofs for you.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      I talked about this recently on the blog. Basically they were the proofs of God’s existence that you still hear today: e.g., that an intelligently designed universe requires an intelligent designer; that the innate morality that we have requires a moral creator who instilled it in us; and that since God by definition is the greatest thing that can be imagined, and something that actually exists is greater than something that doesn’t exist, then by definition God exists. Go figure!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 16, 2017

        I.e. the Teleological Argument, the Moral Argument, and the Ontological Argument, respectively.

        Incidentally, in my current area of indepedent research, the evolution of morality, I have already development several models that show how morality can evolve from biological processes and behavioral imperatives (and I’m speaking beyond the game theory, reciprocal altruism and kin selection models already developed by evolutionary psychologists). I’m still years from publishing, but so far everything points to a “moral creator” being completely unnecessary to explain the existence of morality.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 17, 2017

          If you could provide us all with some of the best bibliography you’ve encountered on the evolution of morality, we would be grateful!

          • talmoore
            talmoore  March 17, 2017

            Wow, where to begin? Although he took a lot of criticism for his foray into this topic in the 1970s, E O Wilson’s original book “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” is a good start. Wilson based his book on the research of, in particular, Robert Trivers, William Hamilton, Robert Axelrod and John Maynard Smith. Since then, some of the scientists who have written on this topic include: Leda Cosmides and John Toody, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Frans de Waal, et al.

            If this is a topic anyone seriously wants to dive head first into, the book that I’ve been using as a prime resource is “Modeling Rationality, Morality, and Evolution” (Ed. Peter Danielson, Oxford Press). This anthology is not only full of interesting articles on this (and other topics), but is also a great resource for bibliographical information. A warning, however, that this is not “popular” literature for the laity. Since the collection comes from conference presentations, the articles themselves assume the reader is a scholar already familiar with the basic science (some involve advanced mathematical models).

          • talmoore
            talmoore  March 17, 2017

            Incidentally, I created a basic version of my moral modeling software in Flash so anyone with shockwave installed can simply run it in their browser. Here’s the link: http://onlyoneman.com/MESS

            Basically, what’s going on in the simulation is with each successive generation of entities, they are evolving to become more “moral” within their context. To see, graphically, what is happening, simply click the STATS button and then click the PLOT button. Everytime the PLOT button is pressed, it gives a snapshot of the aggregate behavior of all the entities, and as you’ll see, they tend to move to the balanced center that can be interpreted as the “moral” center of the population.

      • Avatar
        Gary  March 17, 2017

        It is amazing that Christians assume that evidence for a Creator god automatically transfers to evidence for the Christian god Yahweh.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  March 17, 2017

        That covers the existence of God itself but, beyond a verse or two in the NT (do they question the Johannine Comma at MBI?) how do they prove Jesus is part of the mix?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 17, 2017

          Yes, they did! And Jesus was the next step. Hey, God said “Let *us* make man” — so whom was he talking to?

          • Avatar
            dankoh  March 19, 2017

            Oh, obviously that was Ea talking to Nintu!

      • Avatar
        dankoh  March 19, 2017

        I can (almost) understand the basic ID argument, to the extent that it borrows from the deist “divine watchmaker” idea. But I have never seen any coherent explanation for how they move from the Celestial watchmaker of the universe to a Jewish peasant boy in Galilee.

  12. Avatar
    Tony  March 14, 2017

    Happens to me a lot.

    I’ve learned to be kind to people drenched in faith. Who am I to address their delusions? The truth only causes them discomfort and denial. Their faith was caused by childhood indoctrination. They are victims, but nothing I will say can console them.

    It’s different with the secular who insist on the historicity of Jesus. They have the rational capabilities, lacking in the religiously brainwashed, to actually analyze the NT and notice the primacy of Paul.

    Cognitive dissonance.

  13. Avatar
    paul c  March 14, 2017

    A touching story. From what you have written I think that Pastor Goranson must have been a fine human. I think that he knew that what you had said might be the case.

    Thank you for your thoughtful recollection.

  14. Avatar
    dragonfly  March 14, 2017

    Seems to me there’s quite a distance between “Billy Graham was too liberal for me” and “But what if Jesus never said that?”. But maybe it’s not as far as it looks.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      Huge distance. That’s pretty much my point. I had changed a lot.

  15. Avatar
    Gary  March 15, 2017

    When I was desperately flailing to hold onto my Christian faith, one of my conservative Lutheran pastors told me, “Just hold on to Jesus.”

    But how do I do that if Jesus is dead?

  16. TWood
    TWood  March 15, 2017

    With such an intense story my question seems apathetic, which is not the case at all, but you mentioned your English studies… which I have never really focused on… and I keep forgetting to ask you this… I notice you write Jesus’s (two S’s) in your books (at least in some of the one’s I’ve read)… yet I’ve always understood Jesus’ (one S) was correct… and not only in writing but also in speaking… I’ve always pronounced it as Jesus’ instead of Jesus’s… are both acceptable or have I been writing and saying it wrong?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      Yes, I am emphatically in favor of Jesus’ instead of Jesus’s, but the publisher gets to decide these things. My own rule is the one found in Strunk and White, Elements of Style. The possessive of a word ending in “s” is always “s’s) EXCEPT for two syllable words in which the final syllable both begins and ends in “S” (Moses, Isis, Jesus, etc.)

      • Avatar
        turbopro  March 16, 2017

        Aha! So I should quibble with your publisher when they heed not Mssrs Strunk and White.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 17, 2017

          Yes, I’ve had this fight. And lost every time.

          • Avatar
            dankoh  March 19, 2017

            First, writers always lose battles with publishers. Especially on titles. (Speaks the voice of sad experience.)

            Second, Chicago Manual 16th Ed. section 7.18 says it no longer recommends an exception to the ‘s rule for proper classical names of 2 or more syllables. Example given: Xerxes’s armies.

            So I’m afraid it’s Jesus’s for all of us.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  March 17, 2017

        I thought it was because they are all proper names of characters to whom divine, or semi-divine, attributes are thought to pertain or, alternatively, because the endings derive from the Greek form of the name. The first counter example I could think of is rhesus (the macaque) which might be used as a noun, but when I googled it, I found the word comes from the name of a Thracian king in the Iliad, so there’s the Greek ending again; also, that Rhesus is the name of an asteroid. How else would I have discovered all that that this late in life?

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 16, 2017

      You’ll often hear from grammar Nazis that “Jesus'” is incorrect, and, technically, according to various standards of American English grammar, “Jesus’s” is the correct usage. And that is probably why Bart’s copy editors will insist on “Jesus’s”. But, in the end, the English language is a democracy, not a dictatorship (unlike, say, the French language), so we as users can define usages however we please. For years I’ve protested that “enthused” isn’t a real word, because the adjectival form “enthusiastic” already exists! But, alas, no one wants to listen to my wisdom, so now the monstrosity that is “enthused” is inshrined in the OED, so…*shrug*

      • Avatar
        dankoh  March 19, 2017

        Well, William Safire lost out on “hopefully,” so there’s hope for democracy yet! (Though I have yet to surrender on the misuse of it’s vs. its.) Even the Acadamie Française has been known to give in.

        I keep a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style (16th) at hand at all times. I haven’t memorize it (yet), but I’m getting there. Though even it doesn’t quite cover everything.

  17. Avatar
    TBeard  March 15, 2017

    I grew up attending a General Baptist(quite conservative) church. What killed the faith for me was considering the incidents of birth defects like adjoined twins or hermaphrodites with both sex organs. If God was in control at all times, as I was always taught, I thought how would he ever allow these things to happen? He wouldn’t if he existed.

  18. Avatar
    godspell  March 15, 2017

    I had similar conversations with my dad. It’s hard. People center their lives around a belief–which does not have to be theistic in nature–and that belief is not based on facts, as in fact strong beliefs very rarely are ever based on facts. Charles Darwin was once deeply hurt and offended when Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to him that he no longer believed the human brain could be explained through purely evolutionary means, because it was capable of so much more than early humans needed to do in order to survive. No matter who was right–it was a valid question, and it struck Darwin to the core, because he’d risked everything on defending the theory he’d developed around the same time as Wallace. If Wallace wasn’t sure, maybe he’d been wrong. But that’s science, and scientists have to question each other. Science isn’t faith-based. Science should not ever be a belief system.

    In the case of true belief systems, theistic or secular–if the believer is, overall, a tolerant person, if that belief has helped them be better, do better–what then?

    I’ve always felt like you seek the truth, no matter what it is. But not everybody can handle the truth. Sometimes you just have to follow your own path, and leave them on theirs.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  March 17, 2017

      A philosopher of science would challenge your assertion that science ought never have a belief system. Science is rooted in a belief system that includes unprovable assertions, as the law of conservation. What if Bishop Berkeley (of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) was right?

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 17, 2017

        A philosophy of science is, by definition, a philosophy, and therefore a belief system, and therefore, NOT SCIENCE. You can have a philosophy of aesthetics as well, of art–but writing about that doesn’t make you an artist.

        Science is a way of determining the facts. Not the truth.

        If Bishop Berkeley was right, I’m just imagining your post. And it will cease to exist when I stop looking at it. 😉

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  March 20, 2017

          One of my philosophy professors taught that philosophy is best treated not as a noun but as a verb: it is something we do. From that perspective, it is primarily not something static like “a” philosophy” someone has or a belief system. It is a critique of science (sometimes of a branch of science) but often of science itself–what is its nature, what our presuppositions are when we do it, how it changes…. Philosophy (of science) is a way of determining the facts about science. Once a philosopher has carried out his analysis of this or that part or aspect of science and has reached certain conclusions, then one might refer to what he accomplished as “a philosophy.” Otherwise, using philosophy as a noun as in “What’s your philosophy on that?” is a colloquial use of “philosophy” but it’s not what philosophers necessarily mean by it.

  19. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  March 15, 2017

    hello Bart

    even jesus said he was the way and the truth that was true for specific people and specific time . it was for the children of israel because he said that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of israel so whatever he said concern only this people and nobody else . so what is your comment ?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      I think you’re mixing what John says (John 14:6) with what Matthew says (“Lost sheep of Israel”). John doesn’t have Matthew’s view of the matter.

  20. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 15, 2017

    Oh, one more question I asked:

    8. Can you describe a portion of the New Testament that appears in some ancient texts, but not in other ancient texts? If so, how do you understand this?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      They had obviously not taken my graduate seminar on textual criticism.

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