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Pastor Goranson, the Son of God, and I

Here is the kind of anecdote that I’m thinking about including in my book on How Jesus Became God; if I use it – or others like it – it would begin a chapter, before I move to the scholarly issues.


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.

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Jesus and My First Girlfriend
Anecdotes in Trade Books



  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  March 14, 2013

    Yes, if your trade books are for the average lay person (and not just the scholar wannabes), do include such anecdotes that your readers can relate to from their own life experiences. By doing such, you will communicate your scholastic content much more effectively. People need to know that being human and that change is Ok.

  2. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  March 14, 2013

    “You can’t believe something just because someone else desperately wants you to…..” Bravo Dr Ehrman

  3. Avatar
    Adam0685  March 15, 2013

    I’m not sure if Moody called your required minstry work PCM’s (practical christian ministry), but they do today. They continue that tradition and it remains required for all students. I did mine 7-8 years ago at a kids ministry in Cabrini-Green and then at the Moody Church. Ah, those were the days. Man have I changed.

    • Avatar
      Adam0685  March 15, 2013

      By the way, personal anecdotes will be very helpful for readers who have never been religious but interested – who don’t know what it means for Christans to personally worship god and the how this affected their life, thoughts, actions, and prayers. It helps explain how/why the belief continues even today, 2000 plus years later.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 15, 2013

      That’s right! I couldn’t remember what we called them. In seminary such things were called “practicums” — but I knew that sounded too intellectual for MBI!

  4. Avatar
    Mikail78  March 15, 2013

    Bart, forgive me for the unsolicited feedback, but these personal stories and reflections, such as the one you have shared here, make this already great blog even better. Don’t misunderstand me. I love the scholarly stuff you post and I hope you continue to do that, but I hope you continue to share personal stories and reflections like this and your post, “a privileged view of suffering.”

    Thanks for making this material available to us and at the same time, making your blog a way to support those in need.

  5. Avatar
    eppic  March 15, 2013

    Wonderful and touching view into your “past life” Mr. Ehrman. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Avatar
    DarrellK  March 15, 2013

    Bart –

    My dad passed away April 28, 2012 from the effects of pulmonary fibrosis. My last visit to him was on April 26, not knowing the end was near. He apparently did and asked me if he was going to see me in heaven. I said I planned to seem him in the hereafter. He said that’s not the same thing. As a good fundamentalist, he asked me if I believed in Hell. I said not the way he did. The hurt on his face was difficult to take.

    As you say, you can not believe something because someone desperately wants you to. I believe its worse to lie, even in those types of situations.

  7. Avatar
    brmeam68  March 15, 2013

    Amen Bart

  8. Avatar
    kevinmreese  March 15, 2013

    Bart, do you think his tears were tears of grief for your salvation– or tears that you figured out in 20 years what took him 40? I wonder if that verse in John was his “pastoral rudder” to keep him anchored for the sake of his congregation. That passage was sacrosanct, he would be open to any other scripture passage losing its authority via scholarship– but not that one. What does a man do with his life when he has a wife, kids, a congregation– and he loses his faith? That one verse may have kept him in the pulpit, kept him from going crazy.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 15, 2013

      No, he was a complete believer and was heart-wrenched to see me start to fall away….

    • Avatar
      LP in PA  March 17, 2013

      You asked “What does a man do with his life when he has a wife, kids, a congregation–and he loses his faith?” As I describe in another reply to this post, I have faced this question. After 11 years of theological training (from fundamentalist to liberal) and 9 years of pastoral ministry, I came to the realization that I had too many doubts to continue in the pulpit. (And yes, Bart, the divinity of Jesus was one of them!) It was extremely hard to know what to preach on Christmas Eve when you don’t believe in the incarnation any more. If I said what I believed, I feared I’d be out of a job. But how could I say things I didn’t believe?

      So, what did I do? I found a new career. In my 40s, I moved with my wife and our son to another state, got another degree, and began my life as an academic librarian. It wasn’t easy. But it was the best professional decision of my life. Nobody in the library cares about my theology–or lack thereof!

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  March 17, 2013

        You may be interested in the Clergy Project run by Dan Barker: it’s an anonymous internet group filled with pastors and former pastors who have lost their faith.

  9. Avatar
    Tnewby4444  March 15, 2013

    Uh…yes. More of this please.

  10. Avatar
    maxhirez  March 15, 2013

    What form do “proofs” of the divinity of Jesus take?

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 15, 2013

    A delightful read! I remember hearing, a few months ago, that two young Mormon men were visiting our city, going from door to door as missionaries. I respect their religion and their personal beliefs. But I couldn’t help finding it amusing that these two men, aged about twenty, were described as “elders.” (And yes, I admit I thought privately that if people their age were interested in religion at all, they should still be investigating *various* religions, not accepting “on faith” the one in which they’d been raised.)

    A friend of mine, a devout Catholic, once cheerfully encouraged two young “missionaries” from some other faith to visit her week after week, have tea with her, and tell her about their faith. After that had gone on for a while, their superior came to ask her whether they’d been “harrassing” her. She said no, of course not! She enjoyed having them stop in, but there was absolutely no chance they’d ever convert her. After that, their superior put a stop to it – a waste of their time!

  12. Avatar
    Barbara  March 15, 2013

    Your biographical stories are interesting, they approached the historian to the rest of humanity! When I said to the religious community of which I have been for my whole life, that their certainties were no longer my certainties, all my “brothers” and “sisters” cried. So they confirmed their faith: Christ has died for our sins! Then they asked me if they could pray for me! So, I walked away from those people with the burden of having them suffer, but with the knowledge that I could not do otherwise. Now those people, in accordance with the Bible which would be inspired, do not talk to me, so that I should be ashamed! But of what?
    How do you explain passages like II Peter 2:20-22 from an historical point of vew? Thanks

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 15, 2013

      I think the author believed that a person could lose his/her salvation.

      • Avatar
        Ron  March 18, 2013

        Bart, I would argue that the author was speaking of those with a basic “knowledge” (v. 20) “of the Lord,” not that he would consider them as bonifide participants of “salvation.” Most Christians, as well as those who were once believers and now have lost their faith, have expressed the doctrine of “salvation” as something to be acquired on the spot by anyone who simply believes in Jesus as his savior, asks for forgiveness, turns from his ways, etc., etc. They would even express that the salvation is irrevocable. They are simply taught this in most churches from day one. There are some who believe that it hinges on good works, and this is probably an underpinning of the early Jamesian form of Christianity. Paul, we know, thought differently.

        As for what the real Jesus taught, if we re-read Matthew and Mark, it appears that he never speaks of salvation as an on-the-spot experience that only requires a personal decision to repent and believe in him. This may be disconcerting for the main body of Christians, especially for those who’ve been giving all along their tithes to these churches, not to mention the literalists who may have sold all that they possessed (like the rich young ruler was required to do – Mark 10:21). When the disciples of Jesus ask , “Then who can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25; Mark 10:26; and even in Luke 18:26), Jesus simply says, “With men it is impossible, but not with God.” He could have told his believers something more palatable, e.g., “you already believe in me, you’ve repented of your sins, is that not all that’s required to guarantee admittance to the kingdom of God?” No one who is truly saved, who has endured to the “end,” who has lost his life, who has overcome the great sea serpent (yes, that’s required, too) would ask the question, “Then who can be saved?”

        Instead, what we hear from Jesus is this: “it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Matt. 10:22; 24:13; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:19). This was his “gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 24:14). This is the “hope of salvation” that Paul sometimes talked about (1 Thess. 5:8) to the new converts of his day. The gospel got misinterpreted, I would suggest, by those disciples who heard him say things like “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50), which may simply mean “your faith has made you well; go in peace,” as it apparently does here in Luke 8:48 in an act of healing. These misinterpretations of later statements of Jesus, not to mention the gullibility and laziness of the average convert, have led to a distorted view of the gospel of Jesus.

        In any case, faith and the grace of God are essential to salvation. I can say this with full conviction even though I’ve actually narrowed the gate by including the poor as well as the rich – in fact, to all those who have not “endured to the end,” as taught by Jesus in the Synoptic gospels. What is this “end” and “overcoming” that Jesus spoke about? Is this when the Christ “confesses your name before his Father, and before his angels” (Rev. 3:5), or does it really happen on-the-spot at the moment when, as all the Christians I know will tell us, one repents and accepts Jesus as his savior? Is this really the “losing of life” that’s required – or does it entail a different kind of experience? And, finally, how can one really be reborn without dying?

        These are two different gospels, one of which has been by and large ignored or branded as heresy. The agnostic or atheist, although he doesn’t subscribe to the mainstream gospel (and for good reason), is still obliged to recognize the other.

  13. talitakum
    talitakum  March 15, 2013

    Your pastor believes that John 14:6 is true, cause he believes that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”: your pastor simply believes what many Christians believed and convey since Paul , well before John, since the very first Christians writings we know about.

    All in all, if Jesus said that he was the one who announce and inaugurate the Kingdom of God, where he would have ruled as a king, and eventually his followers saw him resurrected from death by God, how could first Christians believe something different? 😉

    The anecdote of your youth and your growth, your more mature and “cynical” (should I say “critical”?) approach to scripture and faith (in bright contrast with the naïve faith of your lovely pastor), reminds me the verse of a wonderful song by Supertramp, “The Logical Song”:

    “When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, it was beautiful, magical…
    …But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical.
    And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical”

    So you now reached the “Logical” stage of your life. While an aged pastor can still cry for love in front of a lost sheep that lost his genuine faith, I’m afraid I lost such sensibility and I can’t cry anymore like that.
    And sometimes the Chorus of the Logical Song still gets stuck in my head:

    “There are times when all the world’s asleep
    The questions run too deep for such a simple man
    Won’t you please, please tell me what I’ve learned
    I know it sounds absurd but please tell me who I am.. “

  14. Avatar
    proveit  March 15, 2013

    I’ve been wondering about the experience and education of pastors in the various denominations. I have attempted to search on line, but have found very little information. I’m looking for requirements for being in the pulpit and which schools provide education for which denominations. It would be nice if this was “at a glance,” all lined up for comparison. Anybody know how this works? I’ve heard stories of pastors being in the pulpit since they were 16. Are there really churches that don’t have educational requirements?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 15, 2013

      Some of the conservative, and especially more rural, “denominations” don’t have requirements, but I don’t really know much about it. I have known pastors without any training though.

    • Avatar
      LP in PA  March 17, 2013

      I was trained in four different denominational schools (Baptist college and three seminaries: Brethren, Evangelical Covenant, Methodist). Along the way, I was ordained in one denomination and then moved my ordination to another one. Ultimately, I left ministry and became an academic librarian. As a librarian, I sympathize with your request for a resource on the various denominational requirements for ordination! The requirements are so varied, and often so detailed, that an “at a glance” might be hard to produce. Having had ordination status in two denominations, however, I do know something about “how this works.”

      Ordination requirements vary greatly among churches. As Bart indicated, there are many that do not require formal education. You are most likely to find this in conservative churches in what is known as the Anabaptist tradition of the church. This would include Baptists, Brethren, Pentecostal, and many “independent” and charismatic churches. These groups are more interested in someone’s personal relationship with Jesus than the person’s formal education. It is not uncommon to hear people in these churches state that the only book they need is the Bible. They didn’t need commentaries that provided historical, linguistic, and interpretive background. “Just read the Bible,” they would say.

      One of the problems with creating the at a glance list that you want is that churches in this Anabaptist wing of the church are typically quite independent. Baptists, for example, will bristle if you call them a “denomination.” Have you ever noticed that it is the Southern Baptist “Convention”? Or, in the case of the group I was associated with, it was the General “Association” of Regular Baptist Churches. Baptist principles include the autonomy of each local church. There is no hierarchy that can tell a local Baptist church what to do. This is true for many of the independent churches too.

      So, when it comes to ordination in Baptist circles, it is up to the local church to decide what they will require. Some, like what you have heard, will ordain someone who is still quite young if he (typically it is a “he”) is “on fire for the Lord.” All it takes is one small congregation and he is ordained. Other churches may require some amount of college training. Bart went to Moody Bible Institute which is (or was for years, anyway) a 3 year program. Many students left there and went right into ministry. I went to a 4 year Baptist college that sent men (and it was only men) into pulpits. On the other hand, since each church is independent, I can’t rule out the possibility of some having very high educational standards for ordination. It all depends on the local church doing the ordination.

      When you turn to the more organized traditions in the church, you will see more emphasis on requiring theological training prior to ordination. I’m thinking of denominations in the Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic traditions. Of course there are a variety of ordination requirements across these groups. And within each tradition there are individual denominations with varying requirements. The process for ordination in the United Methodist Church (UMC) is very different from the Presbyterian Church.

      As an example of how complicated each educational situation can be, consider my experience with 2 denominations. In the mid-1980s, I decided that I wanted to be ordained by the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC, the group Bart mentioned in his post). At that time, the ECC had a rule that anyone seeking ordination had to spend at least one year at North Park Theo. Seminary in Chicago. It didn’t matter that I already had a 4 year Master of Theology degree (one year longer than the typical 3 year Master of Divinity) from Grace Theo. Sem. I had to go attend North Park to get ordained. So, I did–and I was.

      Five years later, I decided I wanted to to transfer my ordination from the ECC into the UMC. By then I had 5 years of graduate theological training. The UMC required clergy to have a 3 year seminary degree. You would think I would have been all set. Not so fast! The UMC has a list of approved seminaries known as the “University Senate”–and Grace was NOT on the list. North Park, however, WAS on the list. The UMC would only accept up to 45 hours of credits done at a non-University Senate school. So, by their rules, I was allowed 45 hours of credits (out of my 126!) from my first seminary, plus ALL of my work from the second. After their calculations, they decided that I was still one semester (18 hours) SHORT of an “equivalent” 3 year seminary degree–despite having 5 years of training. So, I took 6 more classes at an “approved” seminary, and finally transferred my ordination. (A year after transferring my ordination, I left ministry!)

      I tell you all of this to help illustrate why creating an “at a glance” list could become very complicated. I have personal experience in the ECC and the UMC, so I know their ins and outs. I have no idea, however, of the variations and nuances that might exist in the Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. If you are interested, you can Google “university senate united methodist” to find the list of approved UMC schools. I was surprised this morning to discover that my second seminary (which I got full credit for back in 1991) is now no longer on the list! So, even keeping up a list of approved schools by denomination will involve constant checking.

      I hope this reply helps you understand some of the wide range of educational requirements for ordination.

      • Avatar
        proveit  March 18, 2013

        Thank you very much for your kind reply, LP. I do have some familiarity with the Baptists. I attended a Seventh Day Baptist church for a while, have an aunt who is a Baptist and of course there is the Westboro Baptists. It seems to me they really only believe in independence for themselves. Jimmy Carter would be an exception in my limited view.

        The other futility of my search is that churches spring up around ministers or split over doctrine rather frequently.

    • Avatar
      HaiKarate  March 19, 2013

      I believe Church of God does not require the pastor to have a Bible degree, nor does Word of Faith. Also, there are many Bible schools out there that teach from a strictly devotional point of view. I was thankful that mine was more academic, and at least taught about the problems of not having the original autographs (although they didn’t dwell on it).

  15. Avatar
    amfortunet  March 16, 2013

    I am just a regular person who likes your books, and I would very much like this anecdote included. It is so real that it makes me think you would understand me.

  16. Avatar
    LP in PA  March 17, 2013

    Bart: I think your personal stories help provide a context for understanding how scholarship can have very practical consequences. Since you are writing for the general reader, I think these anecdotes are appropriate and will be helpful. I enjoy hearing them. They resonate with my own stories, and I think they will with other readers too. They help explain that you aren’t just talking about dry, dusty theology. Coming to grips with modern biblical scholarship, putting away childish beliefs, has very personal ramifications.

    Speaking of personal, it has been interesting to me for some time how alike our spiritual journeys have been (similar age, similar schools, similar loss of faith). In this post, you revealed yet another intersection: the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). When I left fundamentalism in the mid-80s, I moved into more moderate “evangelical” circles by joining the ECC. In order to be ordained, I did the year of “orientation studies” at North Park Theo. Sem. (on top of my ThM from GraceTS). I served a Covenant Church in the same conference as Oak Lawn for 5 years. Having become more liberal in that time, I left the ECC for the UMethodistC. After 4 years with them, my faith was all but eroded, so I left ministry.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 17, 2013

    One of your very best blogs, especially the last 3 paragraphs. Did you ever have any more contact with Pastor Goranson?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 17, 2013

      I don’t think I did!

      • Avatar
        FrankBrierton  March 21, 2013

        Good evening!
        You mentioned above, on an earlier posting still of March 17th: “…You may be interested in the Clergy Project run by Dan Barker: it’s an anonymous internet group filled with pastors and former pastors who have lost their faith….”

        The last time I was in a Roman Catholic Mass, the sermon was given by a rather senior priest, on Christmas times visit by the Magi. I left that day with one thought. Someone seeking to enter the priesthood may be unschooled in ancient history in the beginning, through no fault of his own. But as they go through the seminary, or somewhere else along the line – surely they encounter truth from the history books. I was trying to get my mind around – how does he stand there, and continue to preach – what he surely knows by now – is not true.

        Would the Clergy Project be a possible source to ask? Thanks, yet again.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2013

          That’s the thesis of my book Jesus Interrupted. It might be a place to start.

          • Avatar
            FrankBrierton  March 23, 2013

            It is already on my shelf, waiting to be read!! I will stop waiting! Thank you again! Frank

  18. Avatar
    Dennis  March 18, 2013

    Wow, that is the exact quote (John 14:6) my theological friends cite every time I questioned the bible. Now I have a response! Thank you Rabbi Ehrman 😉

  19. Avatar
    ironmarshal  April 2, 2013

    I think this anecdote will resonate strongly with lay people that are reading your books and are currently experiencing that dilemma. I know I was there when I first came across your books.

  20. Avatar
    Billypaul49  April 3, 2013

    This blog keeps getting better. Congratulations!

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