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Why Don’t You Just Believe?

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QUESTION:

What do you have to lose by having faith and believing that Christ was born supernaturally as a result of a virgin birth to Mary, that Christ performed miracles, that Christ died by crucifixion and came back to life from the dead, and that Christ went back into heaven in a supernatural ascension into heaven?  I don’t see any downside.

 

RESPONSE:

I get this kind of question on occasion.  Usually when someone asks it they tie it to “Pascal’s Wager.”  In case you’re not familiar with it, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662 CE), mathematician that he was, thought in terms of percentages and odds.  And he applied it in a famous way to the question of belief – in an age when lots of intellectuals in Europe, and people they influenced, were having doubts about religious belief and becoming atheists.

In a kind of cost-benefits analysis, Pascal reasoned that if someone remained a believer, then if it turned out in the end they were wrong, it would have zero negative effects.  BUT, if they decided to become an atheist and they were wrong, that could have massive, eternal, and exquisitely painful effects.  And so, the only reasonable thing to do was to continue to believe.  There is a lot that can be gained and nothing to lose; and the alternative is to have nothing to gain and everything to lose.  No brainer, right?

And so this person’s question to me: there’s no downside!   So why not continue to believe in the traditional Christian doctrines about Christ?

Let me say at the outset that that I’m not at all offended by the question and understand the concern behind it, even if, as I’ll try to show, it’s not actually very thoughtful.  But still, it’s a question I myself used to ask of people back when I was a conservative evangelical who believed that only those with the proper beliefs would be given an eternal reward, and everyone else was doomed for the fire pits of hell.  For someone with that kind of view, it makes no sense for someone to risk it.  Why not believe?   What’s to lose?

But I have two responses that seem to me to be insurmountable.   I’ll give them by doing what you are never supposed to do, answering a question with a question (or in this case, two questions):

 

The first question I would ask this person is:   Are *you* able to believe something that you honestly do not think is true?

The question itself raises a much bigger issue: what does it mean to believe?  Does anyone really and genuinely think that authentic faith means mouthing certain words that you don’t actually subscribe to in order to be let off the hook?  Would God be convinced by that?  Wouldn’t he, uh, see through it?  I assume so.  So what good would it do for me to say that I believe something I don’t actually believe?

And how can I force myself to think something is true when I don’t think it is?  Belief isn’t mouthing words or lying to get off the hook.

 

The second question I would ask is, for me, the real zinger: Can it really be a simple case of either/or?  Either you believe or not?  In other words, is it really a case that if you choose to believe and you’re right, you may be saved, but if you’re wrong you will be damned?   Doesn’t that assume there are only two options: believe in Christ for salvation or don’t and be damned?

That may have made sense for Pascal, who lived in a world where, for all practical purposes, there were TWO options.  But what about our own world?  We don’t have two options.  We have scads of them.  And it is literally impossible to take them all.

That is to say:  If you want to make sure you cover your bases when it comes to salvation: WHICH religion do you follow?   Suppose you decide, OK, I’ll take Pascal’s wager and decide (somehow) to believe in Christ?   What if, it turns out, Christ is NOT the right option?  Or even, say, the only/best option?

In concrete terms:  what if you decide to believe in Christ and then it turns out the Muslims are right?  You could be damned forever for choosing the wrong option.  So how do you cover the Islamic option as well as the Christianity one?   And … well …  there are lots of religions to choose from.

Even within Christianity:  I know some Christians who have an entire detailed list of what you have to believe to be saved.   And I know other Christians who have a *different* list.  It is impossible to believe both at once, since they are at odds with one another.  On a most simple level, I know different Christians who believe that if you do not belong to *their* denomination, you will be damned; and even Christians who say that you have to be baptized in *their particular church* to be saved.  So what’cha gonna do?

On this logic, do you become Mormon to cover your bases?  And Catholic?  And Southern Baptist?  And a Jehovah’s Witness?  And an Independent-Bible-Believing-Hell-Fire-and-Brimstone Fundamentalist?  And …. ?

Really, when people come up with simple questions, I sometimes wonder what they are thinking.   Are they thinking?   At all?   Do they really think there are two choices in the world, and you might as well play it safe?

 

 

 

 


Final Tribute To Larry Hurtado
Thanksgiving 2019

76

Comments

  1. Avatar
    veritas  December 1, 2019

    ….. becomes our mission. If someone asked me what do you think happens when you die? My response would be simple. I will be in a grave where my flesh will rot away and only my skeletal corpse remain. That I can say with certainty. Cremation will leave ashes. We don’t know anything else with certainty, so it becomes opinions. Again, Theology cannot exist without philosophy. In my view, Pascal was simply saying, it is better to die with a comfort that if there is a God who resurrects, than being left in the grave. For me it is not a matter of choosing to believe in a God, to get salvation, but rather living purposeful to a mission of continually improving oneself and not being caught up in things we cannot know with certainty. We live in a world where right/wrong have become a primary platform and human kindness quickly eradicating. Sorry for the long post. It is dear to me and important to share our views. These blogs are a way of expressing ourselves intimately and Bart you have allowed us to confess!!!!! Thank you.

  2. Avatar
    veritas  December 1, 2019

    For all you perfectionist, It should be 1980 not 1976, the miracle on ice. Too much thinking.

  3. Avatar
    BBartkoski  December 1, 2019

    You’re second question reminds me of John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Many Christians use this verse to argue that if one doesn’t accept Jesus, one goes to Hell; No ifs, ands, or buts. However, thankfully, I know many Christians believe God would never condemn a good man/woman on such a technicality as belief/disbelief. For these Christians, do you know how they explain John 14:6 or do they simply ignore it.

    P.S. I’ve only been a member of the blog for about six months and must tell you that I greatly appreciate it. I’ve found it is a great way to keep up to date and to review the subjects most important to me. Thanks for all the hard work!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2019

      Thanks!

    • Avatar
      RICHWEN90  December 3, 2019

      The way I used to interpret this, when I was a little Catholic boy in parochial school, is that Jesus is the one who judges us, but not based on our faith in him or even our exposure to any particular doctrine. The basis of judgement is entirely a matter of how you live your life: compassionate or not, kind and loving or not, greedy and self-serving or not, truth-seeking or not… and so on. I never saw anything in this passage that demanded faith in any sort of doctrine whatsoever. But what do little Catholic boys know?

  4. Avatar
    crt112@gmail.com  December 1, 2019

    Anfd it raises another question – what sort of God would apply a test on beliefs for entry to eternal joy or eternal punishment ?
    To put it another way, if you believe hypotheses A, B and C then you gan entry but if you dont them you are damned. Nothing about what sort of person you were, what you did with your life, just did you believe A, B & C ?

    If there is a God he/she must be a lot more nuanced than that.

  5. Avatar
    Gary  December 1, 2019

    “I don’t see any downside.”

    The downside is the perpetuation of belief in the supernatural. Belief in the supernatural is the basis of much of the world’s suffering: religious wars, discrimination, misogyny, and anti-science attitudes.

    Before debating him (or her) any further, I would ask the Christian this question: Which source of evidence takes precedence in your worldview: historical evidence or the testimony of the Holy Spirit in your heart? If he is honest, he will say “the testimony of the Holy Spirit”.

    If your debate opponent believes that the voice inside his head takes precedence over historical evidence, you know to end the debate there. Someone listening to voices in his head is operating under a delusion. He is not thinking rationally. Debating him or her will be a waste of time and energy.

    • Avatar
      doug  December 3, 2019

      And as I used to ask people: “How do you know it’s the Holy Spirit talking to you if he’s not wearing a carnation?”

  6. Avatar
    Petter Häggholm  December 2, 2019

    It seems to me that Pascal’s presumption is even greater. The whole thing supposes that any god that might exist must act like an Easter despot—demanding obeisance, and so forth. But this is terribly antropomorphic; it assumes that divine psychology must resemble the power-relationship-aware mentality of highly social hominid primates! If there is a god, why should its mind correspond in any way at all to our notions of social relations? Why should it care about humans bowing to it rather than, say, making sure always to pass pine trees on the left side, or being most interested in the behaviour of badger-like termites near Alpha Centauri; or perhaps regarding humans as a side effect of creating a universe designed to produce black holes?

    At the very least, Pascal’s premise demands a demonstration that if any god exists, that god is more likely to reward obeisance than to favour other behaviours. If you assume that the god must resemble social primates like humans, who have evolved to seek high status because it’s advantageous in mate competition, that makes sense; but if it’s a cosmic entity…what justification have we for such an assumption?

  7. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  December 2, 2019

    Blaise Pascal could have shown you the way. One of the smartest persons ever to exist, a “vision” prompted his return to Jansenism, i.e., nominally [still] a catholic, but essentially a Calvinist. Go figure (Pascal constructed calculators). I suspect, based on the flimsiest of evidence, that he suffered from the neurological disorder CADASIL, which almost certainly is what destroyed and ultimately killed Nietzsche.
    But more important is the site of Pascal’s tomb, in the Paris church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. The church’s side steps on Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève serve as the time portal taxi stand for Woody Allen’s protagonist in “Midnight in Paris.”

  8. Avatar
    flcombs  December 2, 2019

    If as claimed there is really a god that cares, he would certainly make sure everyone knows without a doubt who the true one is. We wouldn’t have to argue over the accuracy or 2000 year old stories.

  9. Avatar
    Kmbwhitmore  December 2, 2019

    I can only speak from my own experience and say just reading books, including the Bible didn’t make me a believer. The Bible actually led me astray. I had to experience God’s presence to believe much in the way Paul did although not that dramatic. Amazing grace, it taught my heart to fear, amazing grace my fears relieved.
    Jesus forgave those who crucified him in their unbelief so he is very forgiving.

  10. Avatar
    Steefen  December 2, 2019

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,
    Do you have Matthew and Luke published between 80 and 85 CE with Matthew coming before or after Luke?

    (I thought Luke was reacting to Matthew but on p. 163 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Second English Edition), Gfrorer puts Luke before Matthew.)

    To me this is a little odd because given Luke’s front matter, I thought one of the earlier gospels he was trying to correct was Matthew and possibly Mark.

    2nd Question, was Luke trying to correct Matthew or Mark–or which gospels?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 3, 2019

      I don’t think Luke knew Matthew’s Gospel, but I tend to date it a bit later. No completely convincing reason for thinking so, I suppose.

  11. Rick
    Rick  December 2, 2019

    Pascal or Polonius?
    The question is did Polonius have it right or backwards when he said:
    This above all- to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.

    Perhaps, it takes being true to others and by that practice, we can face the hardest truths and be true to self?

  12. Avatar
    aar8818  December 4, 2019

    Agreed, Bart. As I see it you are subject to what you believe; at least I am based on what I find to be rationally convincing. It would be easier to believe in some regards but I am satisfied with where I am. A part of me wishes I still could. It pains me to pain my parents with what they would consider a backsliding or even an apostasy. They know I’m still a “good” person. But now as I look at it in a different light i think , why should God judge a soul based on how they perceive reality?

  13. Avatar
    bAnn  December 4, 2019

    Since God doesn’t audibly speak to us so that all may hear from him at once, it is reasonable to think that we have different ideas about His/Her/Its being. There is Truth, but no one has the whole of it. To me, whatever is of benefit to humanity, drawing each of us to our highest potential, as well as protecting the Earth, is of God. The messages expressed by Jesus seem to fit that criteria. However, so does the 10 Commandments, and other scriptures that bring forth our betterment. We hurt ourselves when we don’t recognize that. There is no one “right” set of beliefs. We see in the glass dimly. Jesus was a messenger. We tend to worship the messenger rather than the message.

  14. Avatar
    tskorick  December 4, 2019

    I’m a little late commenting here, but I would assert that Pascal’s flaw is in most evident his summation that “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”

    You don’t “lose nothing” by subverting rational, critical thought in favor of articles of faith built on assertions of the long-dead. You don’t “lose nothing” by unquestioningly subscribing to 3rd-4th century theology and dealing with the ramifications of that in your own life in 2019 in terms of (depending on your flavor of theism and Christianity) bigotry against alternative sexualities, the dismissal of the validity of all other religions, the marginalization of women and the commoditization of their bodies as mere baby factories, the subordination of democracy and the laws of men under questionable pseudo-theocratic principles, the list goes on.

    There can be severe consequences to what seems like the uncomplicated, common act of buying into a faith-based belief system; they weren’t accurately characterized as “nothing” in the 17th century, nor are they today.

  15. Avatar
    vienna1791  December 5, 2019

    LOOP HOLE!!

    I think your first question is an excellent one! I would add, if the Christian God does exist, AND He can see past professions of belief to actual disbelief, THEN that would also apply to those who are professed atheists/agnostics BUT deep inside still believe. There are plenty of those who can impressively rationalize against God’s existence, yet still can’t convince themselves. In that case, those “atheists” may still have a shot at coming out on top in Pascal’s Wager.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  December 6, 2019

      “There are plenty of those who can impressively rationalize against God’s existence, yet still can’t convince themselves.”

      What is the evidence for this assertion, Vienna?

      • Avatar
        vienna1791  December 9, 2019

        What is the evidence that there are people who rationalize against the existence of God to others, but yet, still pray, go to church, and believe that there could be or likely is a God? What sort of evidence would you require? I’ve met such people. I have been such a person. I’m sure if you do a quick search you’d find such “evidence” in the forms of blogs, journals or studies. But, no such evidence is needed. Consider:

        If a person is an Agnostic, he/she does not believe that you can “know” for certain either way. They may have an inclination one way or the other without being able to say for sure, even though they could argue either side. Lawyers do it all the time. Maybe SOME do it cause they enjoy seeing Christians look bad when they let loose with all the Ehrman or Atheist/Agnostic talking points while the believer responds with silly thoughtless defenses cause he/she has never thought out his/her beliefs (most Christians are in this situation making them easy targets). Or, maybe the person likes playing the role of the natural antagonist or contrarian, certain personalities are very prone to that. Who knows WHY a person “impressively rationalizes against God” in public or before others? But, it definitely is NOT in 100% of cases cause he/she actually believes it. NO ONE can show proof for that – which brings us back to Bart’s point. A person can profess believe, but NOT actually believe – for both sides. And, simply professing it doesn’t prove it.

        Now, WHY is this the case for SOME people? I don’t know. I suppose it could be upbringing, or a series of “coincidences” that have reinforced such views over decades imbedding deep in their minds something that tells them that they could be wrong when they rationalize against their beliefs. We humans are remarkable in what we can think even against evidence.

        • Avatar
          HawksJ  December 9, 2019

          Wasn’t saying you were wrong, just asking for the evidence.

          At the end of the day, you are right about at least one thing: we have absolutely no way of knowing what people actually believe.

  16. Avatar
    joemccarron  December 6, 2019

    Great post. I am glad to see you are open to discussing a bit of philosophy.

    WV Quine gave an answer as to what it means to “believe” something in his book web of beliefs. I discuss that here.
    https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/01/09/do-you-belieeeeve/

    One thing I have often wondered is what the scripture writers may have meant when they used the various Greek words translated as belief/faith. Is there reason to think they meant something different than how Quine understood it? I tend not to think that. I think that theologians tried to separate beliefs and actions but the original meaning had a common sense connection between belief and action. Our beliefs are what we base our actions on. And we can’t stop time so our beliefs are guiding our actions.

    I think it is important that our beliefs be rational but sometimes the most rational belief is not one that has evidence proving it is more likely than not true. Consider that someone who weighs the evidence this way:
    Christian God is 35% likely,
    the Jewish God 20% likely
    the Muslim God 5% likely
    all other Gods in aggregate 10%
    No God 30% likely.
    So how are you going to act? Should you just act randomly? Or should you accept belief in the Christian God and live by it?

    I had a draft of a blog I was holding off publishing, but it fits this post so closely I figured I would publish it and link it.
    https://trueandreasonable.co/2019/12/06/two-aspects-of-rational-belief/

    I would also say that either there is a volitional aspect to our beliefs or there is not. If not then ok. But if you believe in free will it is hard to then say you don’t have any control over your beliefs. I mean before I read your books I knew they would give me certain beliefs about historical Jesus. Although I would agree we don’t have total control over every belief I think it is equally clear we have at least some control over some beliefs. We should exercise that control rationally.

    As far as the other Gods, I think you need to sort them out by looking at the evidence. If the Islamic God is inconsistent with the Christian God then look at the evidence for each.

    • tompicard
      tompicard  December 13, 2019

      I did not check out you blog but will do so

      regarding

      > One thing I have often wondered is what the scripture writers
      > may have meant when they used the various Greek words translated as belief/faith.

      hope you are familiar with Heb 11:1

      Now faith is the assurance of what we hope for and the certainty of what we do not see. This is why the ancients were commended. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.…

      clearly there is some substantial actions aspects associated with faith (at least according to author of Hebrews)

      • Avatar
        joemccarron  December 16, 2019

        Yes I am aware of that passage in Hebrews.

        I blogged on it here:
        https://trueandreasonable.co/2018/07/23/faith-defined/

        The passage you quote is awkward and translated in various ways. I think the context is important to understand what it might mean. Since the author will explain how those in the past had faith and how God reacted to their faith it seems the author generally is implying the faith of the ancients and God’s reaction to them is the evidence we should have for our own faith. So their faith serves as a basis for our faith. The author says as much:

        “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Hebrews 12:1-3

        My overall view which I defend in that blog is that Hebrews and scripture as a whole supports the common view that “faith” is “belief and trust in God.” You see the author of Hebrews thinks faith includes belief in god and trust in God here:

        “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Hebrews 11:6.

        Here is is saying to have faith we must believe that God exists and that he will reward those that seek him. That seems very much in line with the common sense view that faith is “belief and trust in God.”

        Of course there are other passages in the NT that support that view. I would be interested in how the various Greek words used for belief and faith have been used in Greek sources unrelated to Christianity.
        https://biblehub.com/greek/4102.htm

        But there is not only the issue of how belief/faith relates to evidence but also how it would relate to action that I find interesting.

  17. Avatar
    Scrutinizer  December 7, 2019

    The Quran also asks people to just believe. Allah will reward them. Better than spending your money as a non-believer. At least you’ll get rewarded as a believer.

    Quran[4:38-40] :
    And [also] those who spend of their wealth to be seen by the people and believe not in Allah nor in the Last Day. And he to whom Satan is a companion – then evil is he as a companion. And what [harm would come] upon them if they believed in Allah and the Last Day and spent out of what Allah provided for them? And Allah is ever, about them, Knowing. Indeed, Allah does not do injustice, [even] as much as an atom’s weight; while if there is a good deed, He multiplies it and gives from Himself a great reward.

    I think only a desperate person will make such an offer not a God who is supposedly free of any needs.

  18. Avatar
    Mark57  December 16, 2019

    This belief dogma was the perfect trap to catapult this religion into exponential growth! If you don’t believe in the religion it is torment & fire through eternity for you. Want to believe now or do you want to take a chance? lol

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2019

      Ha, right! We’re all taking our chances! Believe it, and it turns out “it” was supposed to be a different thing, and you’re still fried.

  19. Avatar
    Syrimoon  January 1, 2020

    “What do you have to lose?”

    Ok well first of all I’m queer, so…any chance of happiness or ability to live authentically as myself

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2020

      Yes indeed! But not by this guy’s standards obviously. Really good point.

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