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Why I Am Not A Christian

I just now – fifteen minutes ago – came to realize with the most crystal clarity I have ever had why I cannot call myself a Christian.   Of course, as most of you know, I have not called myself a Christian publicly for a very long time, twenty years or so I suppose.  But a number of people tell me that they think at heart I’m a Christian, and I sometimes think of myself as a Christian agnostic/atheist.  Their thinking, and mine, has been that if I do my best to follow the teachings of Jesus, in some respect I’m a Christian, even if I don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was raised from the dead, or that… or even that God exists.  In fact I don’t believe all these things.  But can’t I be a Christian in a different sense, one who follows Jesus’ teachings?

Fifteen minutes ago I realized with startling clarity why I don’t think so.

This afternoon in my undergraduate course on the New Testament I was …

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Me and Jesus
Why Do Good People Suffer? A Blast from the Past

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Comments

  1. Phil  March 6, 2017

    Thank you Bart.

  2. Adam0685  March 6, 2017

    You should consider writing a book or series of essays on “Why I am not a Christian (but yet continue to commit my life to the study of early Christianity)”

  3. tskorick  March 6, 2017

    I have much more respect for people like you who pursue the truth despite how ugly it might be. Many of us have been right there (perhaps without the teaching a class part) and felt the pain of tearing off that bandaid. It’s hard, but the truth is the truth and wishful thinking doesn’t make it otherwise.

    I see this worldview, the absence of an afterlife, as increasing the value of the time we do have immeasurably in our own mental marketplace. I take life more seriously, push further, try harder, love more deeply, and cherish every moment because they’re fleeting and -poof- gone.

    This is not a bad life, Dr. Ehrman. It really isn’t at all.

  4. Todd  March 6, 2017

    You don’t follow his apocalyptic teachings but what about his ethical teachings of love, compassion and forgiveness? Any good humanist would find those to be commendable. I understand that there are those who say that his ethical teachings were “Kingdom teachings” but are they not something positive from Jesus’ to follow? If that is so then you don’t reject his whole message. Jesus’ ethical teachings are not unique (the Buddha taught the same) but those teachings are worth practicing.

    My hang up is the use of the term Christian and the terrible reputation so many churches have now days.

    Any thoughts on my comment.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      See today’s post!

      • Todd  March 7, 2017

        Thank you for starting this discussion. It is personally pertinent to me at this time in my life. I hope we can continue it a bit more. Blessings to you.

    • HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

      The teachings of Jesus were those of Second Temple Judaism. No one except Jews follows those teachings. Christians don’t observe Sabbath or kosher. Circumcision has become diluted as a Jewish distinctive. Those who do it, do it for perceived health benefits.

      Key to the teachings of Jesus and all the other Pharisees is the principle of the Hedge of Hillel. It’s the opposite of brinksmanship. I don’t want to be guilty of murder, so I choose not to harbor anger. I don’t want to be guilty of taking God’s name in vain, I refuse to even say or write the name. It’s a good principle, but few take it to this extreme.

    • VirtualAlex  April 27, 2017

      I think it’s rather unfair that Jesus should get all the kudos for his ethical teachings. He has been by no means the only teacher of ethics, not the first and not the last, and not the best. It’s fairly common time and the world over (the teaching of it, not necessarily the practice of it!). So there is simply no need to say that you or someone else follows Jesus if one wants to do good. One does the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Indeed, Jesus’ idea that you do good to get the reward of a kingdom pass is a little self serving.

  5. rburos  March 6, 2017

    But this blog is an example of your love of your fellow man on at least a couple different levels. I don’t follow what one of my priests says, so I recommend you do what I do–be sad that THEY believe there is only value in a “higher” world, that they don’t find a sense of the holy all around them.

  6. Wilusa  March 6, 2017

    I’ve never understood why anyone who didn’t believe Jesus was “God” – and didn’t accept all the doctrines of one sect or another – would *want* to think of himself or herself as a Christian, or feel sad about no longer doing so.

    But…in your case, maybe it was because you had positive experiences in the Christian “communities” to which you’d belonged?

  7. GreggL10  March 6, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I learned about the apocalyptic Jesus concept from taking your (excellent) Great Course on the historical Jesus. You make a compelling case IMHO. To be complete, I have been trying to understand competing theories about what kind of teacher Jesus was in the relevant scholarly literature. One issue I cannot seem to resolve is the question of where the idea that people are equal actually originated. I am referring to the early church’s apparent belief that “there is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male or female.” or the accounts they wrote of Jesus talking to women or tax collectors etc. Maybe I am reading too much of my 21st Century values into this, but that seems to be a major departure from the belief systems of the ancient world. Can you shed any light on this, sir, or is there a book of yours you would recommend?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      Yes, it is a departure from most of what was thought/believed in antiquity (especially in the Roman empire, where the religion started). It’s a good question where it originally came from. Jesus? I don’t really know! You might be interested in Peter Brown’s large book Eye of a Needle, which explores the different Christian ethic/conception of humans (and need, then, for charity rather than dominance)

    • HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

      That’s because understanding what kind of teacher Jesus was is a fool’s errand. It’s impossible. All we have is how various gospel diarists portrayed him. These evangelists wrote inclusively. If you thought Jesus an apocalyptic preacher (or a sage or a Zealot or a magician), you could find texts to identify with. Paul was inclusive and egalitarian because he wanted his religion to be universal, and gain the benefits of empire.

      With tax collectors (sinners) and Samaritans, Jesus chose the philosophy of Hillel, appealing to sinners (non-practicing Jews) and Samaritans (practicing a different form of Judaism) to repent and become observant practicing Jews according to the beliefs of those Jews who had returned from Babylonian Diaspora. Shammai chose an isolationist path, avoiding defilement from associating with anyone but observant Jews.

  8. mobydobius  March 6, 2017

    funny. i had that same realization when i came to understand the historical jesus as this apocalyptic preacher. an understanding that i got from reading your works. it is sort of a punch in the face, isnt it?

  9. rblouch  March 6, 2017

    What if both of these are simultaneously true:

    “Following Jesus means to realize that ultimate reality resides outside this world, in a higher world, above this mundane existence that we live in the here and now”

    “My view is that there *is* no realm above or outside of this one that provides meaning to life in our world. In my view this world is all there is. ”

    My favorite example of the seeming paradox (it is no paradox at all once you’ve experienced it directly) is the movie The Wizard of Oz. The last scene is an intentional mis-director. In the books Oz was not a dream.

    As I tell my five year old daughter with some regularity, “Most people live in Kansas simply because they can’t see that Oz is all around them all the time. The trick is to develop the eyes you need to see it.”

    As for this: “There is no transcendent truth that can make sense of our reality. Our reality is the only reality. ”

    You have just not experienced it directly for yourself.

    Experience comes from proper practice, not from cogniting on the word of God in the Bible. Anyone can experience it if they are willing to expend the effort and have proper technique. It is transformative. It does exactly what you are suggesting can’t happen above. It makes complete sense of our “reality”.

    It will not inherently turn you into an apocalypticist, either. That was just Jesus’ reaction to it. That is the danger in having the experience – it’s so superb you conclude it’s better than the here in which most of us live. You may then need to escape into it forever.

    There are many other reactions to it spanning a spectrum of human behavior and for the most part codified in the different literatures of the various spiritual traditions.

    I have experienced it and I’m fully engaged with life. More so than ever before.

    If any of this makes sense to you and doesn’t sound like the rantings of a lunatic you can spend some time with my answers to questions on meditation at Quora.com to get a variety of different approaches to thinking about it. Ron Blouch My experiences of the transcendent transformed me, as they always do to anyone who has one, and I like to help others who are perplexed understand their own spontaneous transcendent experiences or discover how to have one if they have not.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      Actually, I have experienced (many times) what people identify as the transcendent. And I too regularly meditate.

      • seeker_of_truth  March 8, 2017

        Not to get too personal, but do you use a particular meditation technique?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 10, 2017

          I use a kind of body-mindfulness technique that I vary regularly (I have several sequences I’ve devised); normally it’s about 15-20 minutes/day.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 7, 2017

      People who change the way they think about the world–conceive it–come to experience it differently. That’s pretty clear and is the basis for cognitive therapy. Human imagination is not just imagination but can transform our very experience. I have never taken anyone’s experience of the transcendent as proof of the transcendent–not even my own experiences–anymore than I take seeing the Sun go up and go down (something we actually experience) as proof that it moves around our planet.

  10. ComputersHateAndrewLivingston  March 6, 2017

    You seem to think that your options are limited to, “Something exists outside of this world,” and its negation–as though we were speculating about whether a perpetually locked door was just a dummy door or had something behind
    it. The question instead is, “What may be *here* in the room with us? And is there only one valid way of finding out?” Transcendence isn’t the same thing as separation.

    If it helps, think of numbers and mathematical properties as an analogy. These things don’t consist of waves or particles but instead *affect* those things which do. Like physical laws they are nowhere to be located, will never be seen under any microscope, and yet are known to be objectively real.

    In my experience, when you bring this up people always try to evade it by saying something like, “Laws are descriptive, not prescriptive,” when your whole point is about *why* the world is describable that way in the first place. Physicalists have no choice but to act like mathematics is all a matter of semantics. Yet quite obviously it isn’t: five plus five would still equal ten even if no one had ever existed to notice this fact, let alone label it. The world is arranged–you could even say organized–according to very objectively real patterns. And while that doesn’t tell you anything about Jesus or heaven or miracles it does point to cosmic design.

    P.S. I’m not a Christian either.

    • turbopro  March 7, 2017

      ” five plus five would still equal ten even if no one had ever existed to notice this fact, let alone label it.”

      Perhaps, perhaps not. From my perspective, “5 + 5 = 10” is a definition we give to signify our understanding of our perception of our observations as a group.

      How would we demonstrate that “5 + 5 = 10” is a fact if no one existed?

  11. TWood
    TWood  March 6, 2017

    Makes sense… but I’d say your work to help feed and clothe the needy can still be accurately called “christian” in some historical sense… in other words, you’re counted among the sheep rather than the goats… and that’s a good thing whether there’s an afterlife that accesses other dimensions or not…

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      See today’s post!

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 7, 2017

      The call to be just and merciful, to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and treat the stranger as one’s own is found before Christianity in Judaism, not to say it originated there.

      • VirtualAlex  April 27, 2017

        And Jesus didnt even make up the two greatest commandments either (which are supposed to summarise his teachings. Not a whole lot of original thought there…

  12. godspell  March 6, 2017

    A quantum physicist might disagree with you.

    It’s actually quite impossible that this world is all there is, but I can respect your point.

    I don’t call myself a Christian, because I don’t believe in many basic tenets common to most if not all Christian faiths. I do believe the world is a better place because of Jesus’s ideas, even though those ideas have often been misunderstood and misapplied. And I call myself a Catholic, weirdly, however lapsed, because that’s the culture I was raised in, and because even though I don’t believe Jesus was God, I do believe some spirit of truth spoke through him, as it has through many others.

    There are so many different levels of reality in this world we all live in. So many worlds within the world. To assume only the one you’re perceiving at a given moment is real is to make a very serious error. There is an infinitude of worlds. Every human being sees a somewhat different world than every other human being, I believe. When we say “This world I see is all there is”, that actually constitutes a form of fundamentalism, doesn’t it?

    Yes, on one level Jesus was preaching the end of the world in his lifetime, or shortly after. But is that really all he was preaching? Don’t the stories we have about him indicate there was much more to him than that?

    You consider yourself an American.

    Does that mean you agree with everything America has done in its history, everything Americans have subscribed to as a group in the past few centuries, or right now? Obviously not. But it’s still part of who you are.

    I’m not quarreling with your choice to not call yourself a Christian, not in the least–but think of all the devoutly atheist Jews out there who still consider themselves Jewish. Because it’s part of their identity, and because in trying to get free of it, they’d also be losing a vital part of their identity. That’s not purely a matter of race, of ancestry.

    You want to be free.

    But nobody is ever free of the past. And if we don’t come to terms with that past, we can’t move into the future. A historian knows this better than anyone.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      When I say this world is all there is, I mean that there is nothing other than what resulted from the Big Bang.

      • godspell  March 7, 2017

        Whether the Big Bang happened or not (they’ll be arguing about it long after all of us here are dust, and most of us will no more be able to comprehend the arguments than to read Greek manuscripts), if we knew for an absolute fact whether it happened, or how, we still wouldn’t know this universe is all there is. We don’t, we won’t, we can’t. Our ignorance will always and forever massively outweigh our knowledge, and our knowledge will always be reevaluated and frequently discarded. The only physicist who is always proven right in the end is Heisenberg.

        A very wise man once said “A realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood. It isn’t.”

        Hell, I don’t even understand all of the immediate neighborhood I live in.

        I will hazard one more gentle critique. Your post title is self-consciously patterned after the world’s most famous anti-religious tract, written by a man who was quite a highly regarded philosopher and mathematician in his day, but who today is primarily remembered for being a proponent of atheism. Bertrand Russell, far as I’m concerned, is to atheism what whoever writes The Watchtower is to religion. And I can’t say I think very much of him as a man.

        I respect everyone’s beliefs, or lack thereof, but I always bristle a bit when somebody hands me a tract. And that’s what this is. And that’s not what we need from you. Facts. Not Tracts. And now I’ve quite certainly said too much.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 8, 2017

          I’m not saying we know this about the universe. I’m saying I think this!

          • godspell  March 9, 2017

            But you’re not a scientist–not that kind of scientist, anyway (that’s another academic debate that will never be resolved, is history science or not). Your opinion on the Big Bang and the nature of the cosmos is no better or worse than the average person’s. It’s only when you’re talking about your specific area of expertise that you speak with authority–as do the many fine scholars you respect who are Christians–and just for the record, if I was at one of their blogs, and he or she is telling me “Why I Am A Christian” I’d bristle a bit at that as well.

            When Bertrand Russell wrote “Why I Am Not a Christian”, you understand, he was really saying “Why Nobody Should Be a Christian.” Not that you were saying this, but you understood whose title you were borrowing. Russell also wrote that the British should welcome an invading Nazi Army in peacefully, but he gave that up by 1940. See, it’s not only Christians who can be impractical at times. 😉

            Blogs are an acceptable place to air opinions, world views, and that’s what many people do on them. However, you’ve set up this blog to discuss what we actually know (and don’t know) about Jesus and early Christianity.

            I can see it from your POV–people are interested in your beliefs, and form opinions about them, and you want to set the record straight. But personal beliefs, unlike personal knowledge, are fluid, go back and forth. Lincoln seems to have been a skeptic most of his life–he certainly did not believe in a divine Jesus, and he may well have been a freethinker in his youth.

            Under the pressures of the Presidency, the Civil War, he seems to have become a great deal more religious. He went so far as to say, in private correspondence, that if he let the slaves he’d freed via the Emancipation Proclamation, many of whom were then sacrificing their lives for the Union, go back into bondage, he’d be damned to hell for all eternity. He may not have literally believed that. But he behaved as if he did. Given his propensity for deep depression (and seemingly prophetic dreams), I don’t think we can say he was all about calm materialistic rationalism.

            I accept your statement that you are not a Christian, and in the technical sense, neither am I. But part of being honest with ourselves is to accept the simple fact that the beliefs we absorb in our youth go on affecting us, positively and negatively, throughout our lives. That is true of everyone, without exception. You have certain habits of mind that come from your days as an evangelical–one of which is that you are still much inclined to proselytize. Well, it’s a common enough failing.

            More things in heaven and earth, Dr. Ehrman.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 10, 2017

            I think you misunderstand me. I’m not trying to speak as an authority on the Big Bang. I’m just saying what I think about whether there is a realm outside the material world we live in.

          • godspell  March 11, 2017

            People can think whatever they like about that, but one opinion is exactly as good as any other.

            And in point of fact, those who dreamed of other realities beyond this one have not been exclusively religious visionaries. They got there first, is all.

            http://www.space.com/18811-multiple-universes-5-theories.html

            I think you’re trying too hard here to justify something that doesn’t need justification. Most people in the world aren’t Christians. Including a lot of the people who call themselves Christians. You don’t have to opine on the nature of the entire universe to say “I don’t think a virgin had a baby, and he was human and an infinitely wise and powerful being all at the same time, and he rose from the dead in physical form, and he’ll come back someday.”

            “To sense that behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense…I am a devoutly religious man.”

            Albert Einstein.

            When you try to impose your perceptions–religious or mundane–onto the world around you, that’s the bad side of religion, and atheists are often just as guilty of it.

            When you’re open to new experiences, new perceptions, new awarenesses–that’s the good side of religion, and atheists are often just as guilty of that too.

            Are you?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 12, 2017

            Yes, I’m always open. I also firmly believe in not accepting something without critically examining it on many levels.

          • godspell  March 12, 2017

            I’m the same way. My mind is open, the admission isn’t free.

            But there are things we may feel powerfully that can’t be examined in a 100% critical fact-based way.

            And those are often some of the most important things in life.

        • turbopro  March 8, 2017

          “And that’s not what we need from you.”

          If I may please, with all due respect and courtesy, kindly speak for yourself.

          I, speaking for myself, more than welcome that which you call a “tract.” For me it is not a tract, but, an honest and open sharing of thoughts and understandings by one very learned in matters of which I am most interested.

          Moreover, these are thoughts and understandings that result from a lifetime of ongoing rumination over matters, abstruse and recondite time immermorial.

          Thanks.

          • HawksJ  March 11, 2017

            ??

            Well-said, Turbo.

          • godspell  March 12, 2017

            If I may say, with all common sense and practicality, Bart Ehrman will go down as an influential scholar in his specific field.

            I don’t think he’s going to be remembered as one of the great philosophers, and I don’t think he’s aiming to be that.

            It’s his blog, he’s got a perfect right to do some navel-gazing, and explaining his personal views in depth, like everybody else on the internet with a blog.

            But that’s all it is, unless there’s some facts behind it, same as everybody else on the internet with a blog.

            If that’s all he had, I wouldn’t be here.

            Why exactly do you need it?

            Are you that insecure about your own beliefs that you need them affirmed by someone in authority?

            Scholarly authority and religious authority are not the same thing. For one thing, scholarly authority actually exists in an empirical sense. 😉

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  March 14, 2017

          1. Did Bart say he self-consciously patterned his title after Russell’s? It seems to me a very likely and common title for someone to use if he or she was to sit down and explain why they are not a Christian–too common to presume someone using it was copying another who used it.
          2. My guess is that you do not respect everyone’s beliefs….maybe their right to believe what they want but not necessarily their beliefs. Do you respect the beliefs of bigots? I also think that the right to believe what you want is not a pass one gets to never have their beliefs questioned.
          3.In regard to your March 13 post which had no “Reply” option, you wrote “Not all questions have answers, at least not answers that finite mortal beings can ever divine. And that’s why we need faith” and “Respect the beliefs of others, and insist they respect your own–and understand that where there is no proof, there can only be faith.” Isn’t that conditional on wanting to whether one has an interest in having “answers” to the big questions? Some people are satisfied to have faith that a certain story is a sufficient answer to a certain big question. Other people don’t want to just have faith and feel that, if a question truly seems unanswerable, one should let it go. As Bonhoeffer once wrote (as well as I can remember it from his Ethics), “Some questions are not meant to be answered but transcended.” Where there is no proof, one could have faith or one can just get one with one’s life here on earth, understanding (from hints here and there) that there is more than our senses and science can describe.

      • TWood
        TWood  March 7, 2017

        Yes, but all physicists say there was an initial quantum state that preceded (and therefore transcends) the Big Bang. Some symmetrical sphere of energy that existed before spacetime began expanding due to a mysterious asymmetry that happened (aka the Big Bang or Infinite Stretch). It’s quite possible most of the observable universe *still* transcends the Big Bang (95% of it is made from matter and energy we cannot observe). It’s an old problem (Prime Mover/First Cause), but it’s still a problem in modernity. I’m not saying this proves there is a god, especially a personal god. But I don’t see how it can be accurate to say there is *nothing* other than that which *resulted* from the Big Bang, when we know *something* existed that *caused* the Big Bang—and that something cannot be nothing, can it? The Big Bang required an unimaginable amount of energy to happen. In my view, the eternal questions are: What is energy? and Where did it come from? We just have no way of knowing whether it’s something (unintelligent eternal energy) or someone (intelligent eternal energy). In my view, this makes all of us agnostics in a rather objective sense. None of us knows what the mysterious cause of our observable universe is. But don’t you agree that whatever the cause was, it was *something* other than what resulted from the Big Bang? In other words, *something* caused the Big Bang to happen 13.8 billion years ago. I think that’s safe to say with a great deal of confidence (from a basic scientific point of view).

        • turbopro  March 8, 2017

          “But don’t you agree that whatever the cause was, it was *something* other than what resulted from the Big Bang?”

          Things within that which we call the universe may have a cause as far as we may determine. However, the universe, as its own entity, may not need a cause. It may or it may not need a cause. Perhaps we find out later.

          • godspell  March 13, 2017

            More likely we don’t ever find out.

            Not all questions have answers, at least not answers that finite mortal beings can ever divine.

            And that’s why we need faith.

            It does not have to be theistic faith, but faith in something besides what we can perceive with our physical senses. Science is a wonderful way of learning about the world around us. It’s never going to answer the really big questions like “Why are we here?”

            We can’t rationalize the irrational, as Karl Popper put it. We have to understand the difference between what we know and what we believe, and keep them in their proper places, each respecting the other. Both extremes, theism and atheism, have severe potential consequences, as history shows us.

            Respect the beliefs of others, and insist they respect your own–and understand that where there is no proof, there can only be faith. We’ll never know everything. Because if we did, WE’D be God, which would prove atheism wrong. 😉

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  March 9, 2017

          I would not agree that “something” must have caused or come before the Big Bang–not if you literally mean some THING. There of course were forces and processes but no reason to think that “thing” is the right concept.

          • TWood
            TWood  March 10, 2017

            I mean what Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek means. That is to say, “forces and processes” are not nothing (noTHING), so they’re something (someTHING). It’s better than saying somewhere or someone, and it’s consistent with the definition of “thing” as used by the physicists I’ve read (with the exception of Krauss, who Wilcek basically mocks by calling him out on trying to define something as nothing, and Krauss ends up admitting Wilczek is right in any case). I certainly didn’t mean a bearded man hitting sticks together caused the Big Bang. There was an initial quantum state that had symmetrical energy which was then broken causing inflation and all the rest. The Big Bang did not come from nothing according to all the physicists I’ve read. If you have a information saying otherwise please provide it. I’m always looking for new angles to study. That’d be a new one if there are views saying the Big Bang was not caused by something else. As far as I know, the Big Bang really only explains general relativity (the expansion of the observable universe). I can’t think of anyone who believes the timeless quantum state began 13.8 billion years ago. Maybe I’m wrong.

      • llamensdor  March 7, 2017

        Be careful now, you’re getting into physics. Was there nothing before the Big Bang? How was everything now in existence “created” out of nothing? What “caused” the Big Bang? A first cause, uncaused? What’s that? We are learning that there are not only billions of universes, but billions of universes within these universes. The scope of “reality” is inconceivable (at least to me). I’m sure you don’t mean anything as esoteric as all that, let alone quantum science that tells us we change reality by observing it. I don’t believe in an afterlife either, but there is a lot more in our reality, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy

  13. francis  March 6, 2017

    Dr Ehrman; This is what I believe also and have most of my life.

  14. talmoore
    talmoore  March 6, 2017

    If it’s any consolation, Dr. Ehrman, you’re not alone. I think the same way you do, as do many, many people I know personally. Incidentally, did you ever watch that Neil deGrasse Tyson video I linked? NdT is basically making a case for how we can fulfill our inner desire to believe in something greater than ourselves, but within a naturalistic, materialistic prespective. I call it Goosebumps without God.
    https://youtu.be/9D05ej8u-gU

  15. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  March 6, 2017

    But, Bart, you wrote toward the beginning that your thinking has been “that if I do my best to follow the teachings of Jesus, in some respect I’m a Christian.” I thought, some time ago, you said you were perfectly comfortable with someone calling themselves a Christian if they shrived to follow Jesus’ moral teachings that you have been okay in the past with calling someone a Christian, period, not just a Christian “in some respect.” In either case, why would that change if you didn’t agree with Jesus’ conception of the universe–that is, with his views about where meaning and value ultimately derive from? If one just looks at what they take to be his moral teachings and strives to live them, can’t that stand independently of what Jesus’ other views are?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      See today’s post!

    • HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

      If you follow the teachings of Jesus, you’re a Jew! Jesus (as all Pharisees) taught Torah.

  16. Nan Roberts  March 6, 2017

    Thanks. But other cultures have come up with a transcendent Something. A more than as well as other than. Where do we get these ideas? I also keep wondering what the heck happened to Paul, going from Saul holding the coats to Paul preaching love, etc.

    Going through a faith shift, I find that I don’t believe there is something else or more either. And I am sad and angry and bereft.

  17. Judith  March 6, 2017

    During a severe grand mal seizure toward the end of my son’s life, he saw his deceased father and beloved (long dead) dog walking by. He was told he could not come with them. He had to be changed first, that there was no heaven and after death, we stay here but everything is different.

    Perhaps thousands of years in the future when other earthly dimensions are discovered, Jesus’ words may make more sense.

  18. doug  March 6, 2017

    It was hard for me to stop calling myself a Christian when I stopped believing in God. I had equated being a Christian with being the best person I could be. But I’ve since seen that I don’t need to think of myself as a Christian to be the best person I can be. Nor can I honestly call myself a Christian anymore.

  19. Andrew  March 6, 2017

    This is a really good and honest explanation that helps my thinking. Thanks for the clarity.

  20. bwithers55  March 6, 2017

    An epiphany of sorts? -bw

  21. GTGeek88  March 6, 2017

    So not agreeing with those apocalyptic teachings = not believing in God at all?

    I can understand why people don’t believe. There’s certainly no direct evidence. God is not talking to us from the heavens or putting a non-burning burning bush in our path, but that precludes God’s existence? And certainly lots of religious people throughout the centuries all the way up to the present moment have set a HORRIBLE example of what it means to be Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or whatever). But that precludes the existence of God?

    No can really know. In fact, if atheists are right, they (and the rest of us) will never know, since we’ll just die and “become” nothing. If there is a God, then we’ll find that out, of course. Not that that particular observation has any bearing on the question, but it’s a true observation.

    I’m glad you don’t push your opinion on others. I will tell people why I believe, but I don’t go around proselytizing. And my beliefs get simpler all the time. It’s all about love. It’s about live and let live. It’s not about forcing your beliefs on others through legislation (we have to have separation of church and state). It’s about having your beliefs guide your life instead of trying to guide other people’s lives. All the rules and symbolism and judgment and hate that so often come with religion aren’t about God. They are about man’s imperfections. Only love for your fellow human being is reflective of God.

    But even with that pretty simple and loving attitude, I run into atheists – on your Facebook page and elsewhere – that call me stupid, a dipstick, a moron, uneducated, and other things because – like the worst Christians – they want to force their beliefs on others. One has to reject any belief in God to be learned and correct. Theirs is not live and let live. It’s “my way or the highway.”

    So I’m glad your approach is reasonable, but I’d like to know more about why you don’t believe in God anymore. I guess it’s out there in your writings and videos. I guess I’ll have to look into that. I mean, it is possible to reject the fundamentalist teachings you grew up on and switch over to a simpler outlook like I mentioned above, but, of course, it’s your right to feel like you feel. Just curious . . .

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      I would not say that: one could reject the apocalyptic worldview and still believe in God. But if you don’t believe in God you can’t really accept the apocalyptic worldview.

      • GTGeek88  March 7, 2017

        I believe in God, but think we get a lot of things wrong, so that’s why I throw out the details and concentrate on love, compassion, understanding, and truth.

        But in regards to your comment, I’m trying to make sure I understand you . . . since the apocalyptic worldview assumes God exists, then I suppose it’s correct to say you can’t reject it and still believe in God. Is that what you meant? Because I was really just saying that one can reject the details about how and when and still believe in God.

      • Todd  March 7, 2017

        Good point. I am open to other possibilities, but realize that where I am now is where I am now, and I must focus on the now to be the best I can here and now.

      • godspell  March 11, 2017

        If you’re an atheist, you can’t accept the idea that God will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, no.

        But atheists are often extremely apocalyptic in their ideas–Marxism has an apocalyptic aspect to it, wouldn’t you say? This world will be transformed, the evil will be burned away, and we’ll all live in a utopian world forever after. When Marx said religion was the opiate of the people, what he was really saying was “My drug is better.”

        As matters worked out, not so much.

        • dankoh  March 12, 2017

          No, because apocalypticism depends on supernatural events, and Marx was anything but a supernaturalist. Utopia is not the same thing.

          • godspell  March 13, 2017

            Marx believed in his own variant on the Hegelian dialectic. A process he could not prove actually existed, but which he believed in nonetheless. He felt he had determined larger invisible forces that shaped human history, but which could never be quantified, and which were not subject to any laws of evidence (if his predictions were proven wrong, as they often have been, his followers would find some way to explain it away).

            How is that different than believing in the supernatural?

            At least religion doesn’t mainly pretend to be scientific. Pseudoscience is, in many ways, a lot worse.

            Religion should not pretend to be science.

            And science should not even try to take the place of religion.

            That way lies madness.

          • HistoricalChristianity  March 14, 2017

            “science should not even try to take the place of religion.” — Agreed. But can science help lead to a conclusion that there is no place for religion? Civilization has left in the dust the vast majority of superstitions, feeling no obligation to provide anything in their place. Do you avoid black cats? If you spill some salt, do you throw salt over your shoulder? I’ll know civilization is complete when we build buildings with a 13th floor.

        • HistoricalChristianity  March 12, 2017

          “This world will be transformed” — Wrong. That’s passive voice. We will transform the world. Active voice. Civilization has been gradually doing that for thousands of years. Marxism not needed. Just humans wanting to improve their societies.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 7, 2017

      I hope you are aware that not all atheists are atheists in the sense that they believe and argue that God does not exist. Many (most?) know that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved. They simply have no belief in a god. That too is atheism.

      As for live and let live, I suspect you have your own limits to that goal and accept them as limits you accept and even approve of. For example, when you run into a neo-Nazi or anti-Semite or racist or violent sociopath, do you think live and let live is the right response? I doubt it. I hope not.

      • dankoh  March 12, 2017

        I would call that secularism. I think of atheism (as the term has come to be used these days) as an assertive. even aggressive, denial of the existence of God. A secularist (which includes me) will say that there is no evidence that God, gods, goddesses, anything supernatural, exists or has ever existed, but even if there is or was one, it makes no difference to our lives and is irrelevant.

        • sheila0405  April 17, 2017

          You haven’t met many atheists. What you describe are anti-theists. That is a sub-set of atheism.

    • HawksJ  March 7, 2017

      **If there is a God, then we’ll find that out, of course. Not that that particular observation has any bearing on the question, but it’s a true observation.**

      Not necessarily. Even if there is a ‘god’, it doesn’t necessarily follow that there is an afterlife. We might still just die.

      I think that will be one of the major points of Dr. Ehrman’s upcoming book: many cultures, including pre-Babylonian-exile Jewish beliefs, did not conceive of an afterlife despite belief in supernatural beings. It can be argued that Jesus didn’t believe in an afterlife – in the modern sense – either, even though he obviously believed in a very real God.

      • godspell  March 11, 2017

        Yeah, I’ve never understood the notion that IF there’s a God that necessarily means there’s life after death. Just like I’ve never understood the notion that if there was a God, bad things wouldn’t happen to good people. Why not? Why do we get special privileges? Nobody questions God because of all the bad things that happen to animals, wild and domestic. Only bad things happening to humans–and mainly just humans who look like us–rare is the white person who questions God over famines in Africa. It’s all an elaborate system of self-pity. “Why do I have to die?” Why did you have to live in the first place? You were given a longer lifespan than most creatures, a larger brain, more opportunities and choices than most creatures ever get. And you want more. We always want more.

        The problem is, most of the people critiquing Christianity and other world religions have so thoroughly absorbed the assumptions of those religions that they have a hard time thinking outside the box. They’re angry that it isn’t true. They feel like false promises were made. But those promises were made by men–not God (or gods).

        I don’t know if there’s an afterlife, but I’m pretty sure it’s not just everybody hanging out with their best buds on a cloud for all eternity.

        It would be nothing whatsoever like this life.

        • HistoricalChristianity  March 12, 2017

          The idea of gods did come long before the idea of an afterlife.

          “I’ve never understood the notion that if there was a God, bad things wouldn’t happen to good people.” — Ancient Israel thought that was a requirement of the Mosaic Covenant. That was the crux of their entire worldview, at least as recorded in Torah. But ‘good people’ is not an appropriate phrase. That promise was to Israel (alone) but only if Israel (as a whole) obeyed Torah.

  22. cheito
    cheito  March 6, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    The problem with your teaching is that Jesus did not say what is recorded in Mark 9:1. Scholars can’t prove that.

    It’s more correct to state, that the author of Mark recorded that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste before you see the kingdom of God come in power.”

    As for Matthew and Luke, we don’t know who these people were. They were definitely not eyewitnesses. How could they know what Jesus taught.

    And how do you know their reasons for writing their accounts.

    Isn’t Mark, Matthew and Luke, based on myths, and do they not misinterpret and misquote the Old testament scriptures? Do they not contradict themselves?

    So how can anyone ascertain what Jesus really said from these unhistorical reliable sources?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      I explain it all in nmy book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  23. Jeff  March 6, 2017

    Great piece. After you spoke at MSU last month I overheard a couple students mention how they were glad to have “that fellow” in the audience (out spoken C S Lewis supporter) speak up. While you handled the situation well in my view there sadly appears a strong belief in many that they don’t want to view things differently. Do you see this reaction often? P.S., thanks again for visiting the Spartans.

  24. cheito
    cheito  March 6, 2017

    I meant to say unhistorical and unreliable sources

  25. Eskil  March 6, 2017

    I respect your view but is somewhat funny that atheists always seem to have the most literal reading of the Bible.

    Jesus also said “the kingdom of God is within you” in Luke and “the kingdom is inside of you” in Thomas and “My kingdom is not from here” in John that is also interpreted to mean “it is a kingdom within men”.

    Would these views really contradicting with your view that “this world is all there is”?

    Also your interpretation about following Jesus is held fewer and fewer believers:

    “Following Jesus means to realize that ultimate reality resides outside this world, in a higher world, above this mundane existence that we live in the here and now.”

    I believe that great many cosmologists and quantum physicist value, cherish, prize, and aspire that the ultimate reality indeed is above this mundane existence 😉

    If the historical view on Jesus is correct, it is a miracle itself what the early Christians managed to make out of such a tragedy.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      What would lead someone to read a book in a *non*literal way? We don’t read other books like that, unless (like Pilgrim’s Progress) they give indications that they are not meant to be literal. But I’d hate it if someone read *my* books non-literally!

      • HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

        “What would lead someone to read a book in a *non*literal way? ” — an understanding of literature! Many literary genres are not literal. Tanakh is full of allegory, poetry, hyperbole, even fantasy. When you learn to read literature, you learn to recognize the genre, and read accordingly. Who would ever try to read Everyman literally? And once you understood Everyman, why would you read early Genesis literally? In all the Canaanite languages, adam means human, man, mankind. In all non-biblical writing, we recognize hyperbole. I told you a million times, don’t exaggerate!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 8, 2017

          Yes, that’s right. Some books are clearly meant to be read allegorically. These books give clear literary indications that they are to be read that way (think: Pilgrim’s Progress). Most of the Bible gives no such indication.

          • HistoricalChristianity  March 8, 2017

            True, most doesn’t. But early Genesis does, comparable to Everyman. No one is surprised to find a talking snake in an allegory.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 10, 2017

            Actually, throughout history no one was surprised to find a talking snake in a literal recounting of what happened in the past.

          • HistoricalChristianity  March 10, 2017

            Really? Do we know what they thought about these stories? I’ve considered the possible that first-century Greeks and Romans believed the gods required their sacrifices, but considered the body of stories told about them (mythology) to be entertainment. I can’t say for sure if this was true, or if was true earlier.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 12, 2017

            Yes, I don’t think the myths were generally “believed” they way Christians today “believe” the Bible.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 7, 2017

      There are so many claims fundamentalists make about what the Bible is and about what it says that the Bible itself does not support that it can be very useful at times to read parts of lit literally just to get our feet back on the ground and deal with the words that are there. Like Bart says, First we have to know what it says. E.g. if you read Genesis 2-3 literally and do a descent job not reading anything into it, you will find no story there of the Fall and will not find there most of what conservative Christians claim it says. And, if there is no Fall–if we are not Fallen, then there is no need for salvation as most conservative Christians today mean it.

  26. flshrP  March 6, 2017

    Jesus is a failed apocalyptic prophet and, in light of Matt 24:36, cannot be the second person of the Trinity. End of story. None of the centuries of theological fancy dancing can change this.

    • HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

      Wrong. Jesus was portrayed as an apocalyptic prophet (among other things). That doesn’t guarantee that he was. Besides, Paul didn’t care about anything Jesus ever did or said. He cared only about the sacrificial death.

  27. leo.b@cox.net  March 6, 2017

    Besides the apocalyptic views of Jesus, are not the views attributed to Jesus that stress love, being kind to those who suffer, and forgiveness appropriate for living in this world in harmony. My question to you is: are you throwing out these views also? This is not asked to be snarky, tricky, or condemnation of your views. Maybe we could invent a new label for a world view that replaces the word ‘Christianity’.

  28. ncarmstrong  March 6, 2017

    Even so, that does but preclude any of us from being one with the ground of all being, does it? If that includes being a follower of the mythical Jesus of Nazareth, that might be a good thing after all.

  29. profchallenger  March 6, 2017

    Reading this not only sounded reminiscent of my own personal journey over the last 10 or 15 years but I also thought perhaps reflective of the character of Solomon in his old age as well. That point where we stop seeing reality through a realm of fantastical interpretation but reevaluate our interpretive prism in light of reality.

    Thank you.

  30. RevJoni  March 6, 2017

    I don’t hear Jesus saying that at all. I think the “kingdom of heaven” if you will, is right here, right now if you only love. Why do you take these scriptures so literally? It’s not some far off place in the sky. It’s right here, right now. Just as hell is right here and right now. To think heaven is a “place” in the sky is just kindergarten theology. Come on Bart. I chew on every word you write. You are my “go to” scripture scholar. And as a Catholic Priest I have never disagreed with your writings. I get your brilliant scholarship. It sounds as if you want to follow Jesus, but you just don’t buy into his apocalyptic views am I right? Why or why are you taking them literally. Nothing he said was literal. Go deep into the mysticism. He wants us to know the kingdom is now. It is here already. There will be no “second coming” that is just bunk in my opinion. It’s up to us to make it happen.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      Why would you read a book non-literally? We don’t normally read books that way. I myself would hate it if people read my books non-literally. Why make an exception for the Bible?

      • Jim  March 7, 2017

        Well, it’s well beyond me why anyone would even consider taking 1 Chronicles chapters 1-9 as anything but figurative. (said with a naughty grin)

        • Bart
          Bart  March 8, 2017

          Ha!

        • talmoore
          talmoore  March 8, 2017

          Who needs Ambien when there’s nine chapters of obscure genealogy?

        • HistoricalChristianity  March 8, 2017

          Not figurative, but legend, recorded tradition.

  31. Loring  March 6, 2017

    Very well stated, Bart. I resonate with your perspective, so thank you for sharing this. Btw, I’m really looking forward to hearing you speak (and hopefully meeting you) in Washington, PA this Thursday!

  32. Jason  March 6, 2017

    Your points here seem to be saying that you can’t call yourself a Christian because you don’t hold the same beliefs as Jesus, but as is so often pointed out (even by yourself I believe, unless I’m conflating you with every other scholar of the field that I admire) Christianity wasn’t really the religion of Jesus, but rather the religion that developed about Jesus.

    My own departure from Christianity came in no small part because I read the NT directly with only a historical context as provided by writings of yourself, Tabor, Crossan, and other popular historians, and the realization that the “Jesus product” that had been marketed to me by the church, my family, etc. was not at all a true representation of what was in the package. The peace-and-children loving hippie I’d been sold was really recorded to be a guy who vandalized his church, treated his mom like crap, wanted to start a war between heaven and earth, or between fathers and sons and even at times appeared absolutely insane no matter what cultural criteria applied. Later it would dawn on me that the entire Lamb-of-God atonement scenario is apparently negated by the records of his acts that in the first century Jewish context could only be counted as sins (meaning he wasn’t sinless when he was crucified, etc.)

    My question then is, do any of the nonsensical, hypocritical or oppressive facts of the history of Christianity after the crucifixion resonate with you with anything like the intensity that the in-congruence you see between your view of “ultimate reality” and what you see that of the historical Jesus to have (had his elucidation of it ever been recorded) been?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      No, I’ve never thought the inability of Jesus’ followers to keep his teachings had any bearing on the truth of the teachings themselves.

  33. Matt7  March 6, 2017

    Or maybe you’ll wake up after you die and find out that your metaphysical views don’t matter as much as how you treat other people (cf. Matt. 25:40).

  34. JoeBTex  March 6, 2017

    Awesome … I couldn’t have said it any better .. but I also might add that the message of Jesus was changed from the apocalyptic Son of Man story to one of salvation and everlasting life as the generation grew to an end and believers realized that the story had to change or die out …..Bravo !

  35. steelerpat  March 6, 2017

    Thanks for sharing…. the defintion of christian is so loaded and variable imo…So neither everlasting life version of “pie in the sky by and by” or “steak on your plate while you wait” sways you?:) along lines of your interpretation, i have heard some contempoarary teaching allude to everlasting life ala John 3:16 as to life now here on earth versus living forever literally, or our job being to create heaven on earth versus waiting on the sky pie theorem…., any evidence of early “christian” or other sects sharing viewpoints similar to yours?

  36. davidschlender@Gmail.com  March 6, 2017

    Great post. I’m coming to your conclusion as well, (kicking and screaming), after being raised 28 years in Christian fundamentalism. I do wish, however, that I could be connected to some sort of a congregation. However I no longer believe in the teachings of Jesus or of his apostles. I remember you mentioning at one time that you and your wife attend an Episcopalian congregation. If you don’t mind me asking, do you still partake in religious services? I’m really struggling with where I can fit in, in light of what I believe now.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      No, I don’t any longer, except Christmas eve. I really don’t feel like I belong in a church.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 7, 2017

      Maybe Unitarian?

    • HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

      Participating in community is indeed valuable, but it need not be based on religion. We have many other choices based around neighborhood, city, family, demographic, interests, hobbies, work, ethnicity, and so on. Social interaction is essential to health, but it need not be religious.

  37. HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

    “But it does appear to be who Jesus really was.” — No, it’s how some gospel authors thought Jesus really was. Perhaps not even that. The gospels are primarily evangelistic. They were written to be inclusive. If you thought Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher (or a sage or a Zealot or a magician or …), then you could find texts in the gospels to identify with.

    At best, the gospels show what some proto-orthodox Christians thought Jesus was. As you have taught, there were many other ideas among Christians about who Jesus was.

  38. HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

    “I told my students that the apocalyptic Jesus realized that ultimate reality and true meaning do not reside in this world.” — That seems inconsistent with what you already noted. As did his peers, Jesus thought the apocalypse would happen on earth, within a generation or two. That was Paul’s idea as well. Not until late first century did people finally figure out that it didn’t happen. Then they spiritualized it. Some thought (as you see in Luke) that it was somehow already here. Others thought it would happen in an afterlife. But this was after the death of Jesus and probably even of Paul.

    • VirtualAlex  April 27, 2017

      I think Bart and Jesus meant, not this present world (age) but the next – the one God was bringing to Earth NOW.

  39. redshrek  March 7, 2017

    Thank you for this write up Dr. Ehrman. I used to be a former fundamentalist Pentecostal Christian and was that for the majority of my 34 years. A presentation you did on the bible several years ago came up on C-Span Book TV and I happened to watch that show and it started me down a path where I eventually separated from my faith. It took me a while to feel comfortable calling myself an Atheist because of a deep seated fear of burning in hell for eternity but when I really dug into the supposed word of god and saw that the reward that heaven represents seems to be reserved for people who are able to best follow orders rather than trying to be a good person for goodness’ sake. I found myself no longer being impressed with the supposed wise words of Jesus and I made my way out of the faith.

  40. talitakum
    talitakum  March 7, 2017

    Your (respectful) materialistc view can be summarized like this: Jesus believed in a trascendent God, you don’t. And when you say that our reality is the only reality, still our reality exists – and some people may wonder how is that our reality exists. In your view, probably the answer is “it is what it is” ? Whatever the case, I don’t think that Jesus’ teachings can be reduced to his apocalyptic message only… You can love your enemies and feed the hungry even if this is the only one reality.

  41. Silver  March 7, 2017

    I can readily see why, if you see Jesus as proclaiming one understanding of things to come to which you do not subscribe, you are unable to call yourself a Christian i.e. a follower of Jesus. However, what has caused you to see things so radically different such that ‘this is all there is’? Certainly you have not always held this view. Is it because of the problem of suffering and your ‘Ecclesiastes worldview’?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      That’s what started it. I simply don’t think there is a divine being above or outside of our material reality.

  42. Boltonian  March 7, 2017

    I sort of agree except that what we think we know cannot possibly be what is objectively there. We experience the world mediated in our brains (through the senses) and it would be a remarkable coincidence if those sensations were exact replicas of what is really out there. As we cannot live outside our brains, as it were, the objective world, even suppose such a thing exists, must lie beyond us. We get hints that the world is beyond our comprehension from time to time but all of our attempts at understanding is reduced to metaphor; mathematical equations, for example.

    Although I am a thoroughgoing determinist, we live as if free will exists and that we are capable of moral choice. However, scientific progress points to this as illusion, which, I believe, is helping to improve our behaviours. For example, it wasn’t long ago that we punished anybody who deviated from the norm, whether it be sexuality, mental health, skin colour or physical disability: the more we understand about genetics and the environment the more tolerant, forgiving and understanding we become. This partly explains why the world is a better place today than it was yesterday (and yesterday than the day before etc) using almost any measure one cares to use – read Steven Pinker’s, ‘Better Angels of our Nature,’ for a fuller exposition.

    Having said all that, we live life as it is and anything beyond the world we are capable of perceiving is pure speculation – and it is in that sense that I agree with you, Bart.

  43. Mhamed Errifi  March 7, 2017

    hello Bart

    if you believe there is no judgment day where people will pay the price for what they had done so how do you explain that many tyrans will get away with their crimes because we could not punish them in this world since they were above the law . dont you think is unfair that these people will never be punished .

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      I don’t think “fairness” is written into the code of existence.

      • Todd  March 7, 2017

        Well said…if anything, existence is unfair.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 7, 2017

        Hear, hear. Although one of the last things I said to my ex- before she died five years ago of cancer was this: “I thought I was long past the point of thinking of the world in terms of fair and unfair. But you have always eaten better and exercised more than me and yet you are the one with cancer.” We cried together.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 8, 2017

          I’m sorry to hear that you lost your wife to cancer.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  March 8, 2017

            We had divorced 30 years earlier but still were casual friends. The hardest part was watching our two children (in their 30’s lose their mother. But I was surprise how deeply it affected me after three decades.

  44. Robert  March 7, 2017

    “I told my students that the apocalyptic Jesus realized that ultimate reality and true meaning do not reside in this world.”

    It is not so simple. The ultimate reality resides precisely in this world:

    Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

    Apocalyptic judgment gives greater, even eternal significance to this world and our actions, which is much greater than those who only believe in this world.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 7, 2017

      “The ultimate reality resides precisely in this world:” It’s not so simple. I couldn’t disagree more with “Apocalyptic judgment gives greater, even eternal significance to this world and our actions, which is much greater than those who only believe in this world.” It is true that belief in apocalyptic judgment can add significance in the believer’s mind. But whether the judgment is real or the significance that comes from believing in it is real or true, I don’t think you or I know.

  45. RonaldTaska  March 7, 2017

    Well, one of the things that I really, really like about you is that your views keep evolving as you think critically and study diligently. That is the way scientists tend to grow in their different fields and I am used to thinking in that way. It is a much different approach than thinking that one has the truth and that that truth is fixed in cement. I am sure that if someone could make a convincing argument about Christianity that your thinking would evolve accordingly. My argument is a little different, but reaches the same conclusion: I think it is much more likely that ancient people made up a lot of stuff about Jesus than that the Gospels are largely historical. So, it is difficult to know much of anything about Jesus with certainty. This makes belief difficult, if not impossible, at least for me. I just do not find the Gospels, because of their very different accounts, to be that convincing and that is really the only information we have about Jesus. Even today, humans make up a lot of stuff. That’s just the way humans happen to be.

    Thanks for sharing this post.

    • HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

      Then, forget the gospels. They are not essential to Christianity. They didn’t even exist until at least a couple of decades after Paul died. Look at all the other gospels (almost 50) that never made it into the proto-orthodox Christian canon. Paul cared only about his sacrificial death, not about anything he said or did during his lifetime.

      If you want to evaluate Christianity, read Paul (the undisputed Pauline works). The only one where he tries to systematize his ideas is Romans. As Dr. Ehrman emphasizes, the writings of Paul may be our earliest Christian writings which survive today. But thanks to the work begun by Walter Bauer, we are seeing that there might be some even earlier.

  46. mcb2k3  March 7, 2017

    It is clear that predicted events central to Jesus’ message failed to take place, and I often contemplate that reality. Apart from that, it is clear that Jesus was not a Christian, as that tradition evolved, and so why should I be? I call myself one because I choose to join with others in a flawed tradition of flawed beliefs that is where I feel I should be at this point late in my life. It is not rational, but then neither is what I see going on around me all the time.

    I do feel a need to be aware and informed about what it is that I am a part of. Thank you, and please continue doing what you are doing!

  47. dscotth  March 7, 2017

    Given the apocalyptic message that Jesus was preaching, what exactly was the “Good News?”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      The Kingdom of God is soon to arrive!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 7, 2017

        …and if you accept Jesus Christ, you will be saved from damnation.

        • HawksJ  March 8, 2017

          The great irony, of course, being that there was no ‘damnation’ until the later Christians invented the solution.

          That is great marketing. Have a product with no market? Invent a problem which your product seems to solve. A couple years ago, I heard the CEO of Apple say, ‘our basic mission is to create products which people don’t yet realize they can’t live without’.

          • HistoricalChristianity  March 10, 2017

            Paul at least set the stage for this. From a presumed monotheistic position, Paul in early Romans declared that the only god which existed (a minority position in the ANE) set an impossibly high moral standard, and that no one has ever succeeded in living up to that standard. Paul then declared the (universal) punishment to be death, then declared believe in Jesus as the only universal sacrifice to be the only solution. He didn’t declare that his was the best laundry detergent, but that it was the only laundry detergent. It was an easy step from there to the only cure for eternal torture in an afterlife, when Christians adopted that idea.

  48. ddecker54  March 7, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman:

    I completely agree with you that the apocalyptic view was what Jesus preached and am anxiously awaiting to hear how that view was morphed into the “Heaven and Hell” theory of the early Christians. I might also suggest that you reconsider your statement that “Our reality is the only reality” in light of the fact that Western philosophies have a decidedly different (and I might add, limited) view of what we call “reality”.It’s a question of consciousness. As Hamlet told Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    Really enjoy the blog.

  49. tduvally
    tduvally  March 7, 2017

    As a non-believing Humanist I’ve had many people tell me similar things about my supposed Christianity. That despite my beliefs, I am “Christian” in my ethics. I took this as their way of giving me a compliment, but it had secretly bothered me for many years. One day I finally figured out exactly WHY it bothered me.

    It bothered for the same reason some people used to use the word “white” to mean good, as in you did something nice for them and they say “That’s awfully white of you”. Now this is could be considered an archaic (and deeply racist) saying today, but the same idea still persists in another form of it. The saying, “That’s very Christian of you”.

    As if that is the only true way to measure goodness. It’s not a complement in any way. It’s an insult said with a smile, as if you can’t possibly be good unless you are Christian.

  50. mannix  March 7, 2017

    I still like Pascal’s gambit. I choose to believe in an afterlife. If I’m right, great! If wrong, I’ll never realize it or feel disappointed.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2017

      The problem is that it’s not an either/or. If you do choose to believe in the afterlife, what if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness but only the Baptists get into heaven? Or if you’re a Christain and only Muslims get in. Etc….

      • mannix  March 8, 2017

        I simply believe in an “afterlife”….don’t know about any “heaven” or “hell”, or what the afterlife is like. As far as religions are concerned, as “…all roads lead to Rome”, I believe the afterlife is there for all.

  51. toejam  March 7, 2017

    I agree with you, Bart. Seems to me that the Historical Jesus fervently believed in the God of the Hebrew scriptures, and encouraged others to do so. Someone today calling themselves a “Christian” because they desire to follow the teachings of Jesus, yet who doesn’t believe in the God of the Hebrew scriptures – let alone a God of any description – seems to me to have missed the fundamental pillar of Jesus’s teachings. I am not a Christian because I don’t believe in the God of the Old Testament. I think that character is a superstition. Plus I think that Christianity tends to encourage its followers (implicitly, not explicitly) to judge other people’s hearts incorrectly – that one’s “unbelief” is a result of their arrogance, selfishness, “rebellion” against God etc., not due to a reasoned examination of the evidence that came up short.

  52. webattorney  March 7, 2017

    I was reading John Chapter 17 where Jesus prayed a long prayer. I was thinking to myself how could anyone have written down word for word the exact content of Jesus’ prayer, when other information is not as specific or clear. That didn’t make sense to me. Do you think someone wrote down that prayer and attributed to Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2017

      I think someone came up with it and assigned it to him, yes.

      • HawksJ  March 8, 2017

        Bart, how can we have any confidence that we know ANY of the actual words of the historical Jesus? Things that he did? Perhaps. General themes and ideas from his preaching? Maybe. His actual words presented in quotations? I don’t see how.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 10, 2017

          I deal with this issue at length in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

          • HawksJ  March 11, 2017

            Thanks, I just ordered a copy from Amazon.

            By the way, there is a seller on there called Lucky’s Fulfillment that lists a used paperback copy for sale for $1,872.21.

            Must be signed by the author. I heard he’s rock star status. ?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 12, 2017

            Ha! Wish I got a royalty for *that* one!

        • HistoricalChristianity  March 10, 2017

          Here, I disagree somewhat with Dr. Ehrman. From what I see, we cannot know with any degree of certainty anything that Jesus said or did during his lifetime. For Paul, all he had to do was die as the universal sacrifice. The bios narratives in the gospels are simply portrayals of the kind of person the authors thought he might have been.

  53. O.B. Richardson  March 7, 2017

    Bart, I find your article very insightful. I agree, most of the New Testament has some eschatological/apocalyptic significance. Sadly, most believers see these passages as something that is going to happen in their lifetime which totally misses the mark . 🙂 In light of this, have you ever heard of Preterism (some call it realized eschatology)? It’s a theological perspective that places those apocalyptic passages in the immediate context of Jesus and his contemporaries and the fulfillment of those prophecies are realized in the eradication of Old Covenant Jerusalem in AD 70. I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this matter. Thanks for sharing. Your writings are a breath of fresh air!

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 8, 2017

      The Old Covenant wasn’t eradicated at all–only Temple worship and sacrifices. Judaism underwent some transformation and evolution and is still with us.

      • HistoricalChristianity  March 10, 2017

        Second Temple Judaism does still exist as rabbinic Judaism. Judaism still rejects all key ideas of Christianity. But Paul never cites Torah as even a moral standard. He seems to merely take that of his culture. Paul doesn’t explicitly reject kosher, though he doesn’t require it of Gentile converts to Christianity (i.e. most Christians). I’m not sure what he thought of Sabbath, though I may recall that tomorrow. If not Paul, then the author of Acts thought Peter rejected kosher.

    • HistoricalChristianity  March 8, 2017

      I’m not Bart, but I’ll toss in my answer anyway. The foundation of Preterism is the recognition that all prophetic literature in Tanakh is of, by, and for Israel. It’s relevant only to Israel. From that perspective, it’s not relevant to Christianity. That includes the sayings attributed to Jesus in Matthew 24-25 etc. Revelation, and other Christian apocalyptic writings, take Jewish apocalypticism whole cloth, but declare that Jesus will be the agent of judgment. The relegate to the ‘bad’ bucket, not those who persecuted Israel, but those who persecuted Christians (like Nero).

      These texts are all good and poetic representations of what people at the time believed. That doesn’t make them in any sense true. As I’ve said before, as people realized the apocalypse didn’t happen, they formed new hypotheses that is was happening already (in some mystical spiritual sense) or that it would happen in an afterlife.

      70 CE is not relevant to either scenario. That, plus later brutal repressions by Rome of Jewish rebellions, led Jews to mostly abandon that apocalyptic worldview. Yet they never thought that the Mosaic Covenant was ended. They didn’t think that when the first temple was destroyed. It’s their religion and their covenant. Christians have no right to declare that Mosaic Covenant is obsolete.

  54. CharlesM  March 8, 2017

    “Meaning comes from what we can value, cherish, prize, aspire to, hopeful, achieve, attain, and … love in this world. There is no transcendent truth that can make sense of our reality. Our reality is the only reality. It can either be (very) good for us or (very) bad for us. But however we experience it, it’s all there is.”

    Born a Catholic. At 16 was extorted into the Pentecostal ways. 35 years of that. Finally working for the largest christian network in the world, and 7 years ago coming to conclude that all theses years of being part of something that NEVER made any sense, was a byproduct of wanting meaning. Meaning DOES come from what we value as does the desire to have a transcendent truth for what we do not understand. Maybe having a magical man bring presents might not be a good lesson to teach a fresh new brain. 🙂

    In other words, you could not have said it better. Thank you

  55. Jana  March 8, 2017

    I guess it wouldn’t make any difference to anyone nor should it and I am unsure why I feel compelled to insert that from intimate personal experience you are wrong 🙂 … I also state thus not wanting to offend or provoke and respectfully honoring your generosity and goodness and sincerity as well as brilliance .. it’s simply the truth.

  56. Jana  March 8, 2017

    I’m also not a Christian and there are other realms .. inhabited realms. Suffice to say … extraordinary.

  57. bcdwa288  March 9, 2017

    You make it clearer every day that Christian theology is based on something other than “truth”.
    Many of us have had a somewhat vague awareness of that fact for some time but you organize those thoughts in a unique and most welcome way. And, yet, Christianity has had a positive impact on civilization beyond measure. Could it be that there are things we should believe whether they are true or not? Or maybe, as Rodney Stark wrote in his book “The Triumph of Christianity” the movement grew because it afforded a support group for its adherents and not because of its Theology. Elaine Pagels in her books “Adam Eve And The Serpent” and “Beyond Belief” makes the point that something good comes out of going to church that is far beyond the whole of original sin and atonement theology and all the rest.
    James D. Tabor in his book “Paul and Jesus” points out that Paul of Tarsus said in Galatians that what Jesus said and did “in the flesh” was not important. Paul thought the only important thing in the life of Jesus was his resurrection. So the man Jesus, divine or not, was not the founder of Christianity. Paul went on to do that over the objections of the Apostles in Jerusalem led by James, the brother of Jesus, who Jesus had personally picked to continue his work. Paul claimed that everything he knew about Jesus and used to found Christianity was revealed to him in several (continuous?) visions starting on the road to Damascus. So Christian theology is not about the teaching of the walking talking Jesus but is based on Paul’s claims. The Gospels and Acts portray Paul’s views, not those of the man Jesus.
    But, of course, you know far more about all this than I do. Consider it as context to my following question. What is the future of Christianity? How can we capture the valuable features of church attendance and participation without the fantasy? Is there an alternative? Is there a denomination or other group movement that provides those support features?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2017

      I think the future will be very interesting, but I have no idea where it’s all heading. What’s most intriguing to me is how Europe, including England, has become massively non-Christian while religion is thriving in America and other parts of the world. It’s a HUGE cultural shift. And where will it head?

      • HistoricalChristianity  March 10, 2017

        Europe led the decline of Christianity (and religion in general). England lags. The US lags even more, especially in the South. The South may lag indefinitely. The intellectual areas of the US are probably somewhere between Europe and England. Those areas are approaching the knee of the curve. The curve accelerates as it becomes socially acceptable to admit you are atheist.

    • HistoricalChristianity  March 10, 2017

      I agree with nearly all of that except this: “James, the brother of Jesus, who Jesus had personally picked to continue his work.” — We have no evidence for that.

      • bcdwa288  March 12, 2017

        Read the book “Paul and Jesus” by James D. Tabor and check the references!

  58. yes_hua  March 10, 2017

    Wow. Personal, fantastic. A great post, maybe the best about you yourself. Thanks for sharing!

  59. 11thStory  March 10, 2017

    “And he said unto them (his disciples), Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste of death before you see the kingdom of God come in power and after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them.”

    Could the transfiguration experience account for seeing the kingdom of God come in power?

    In Exodus 24 “Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel:
    And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.”

    • HistoricalChristianity  March 13, 2017

      Where do you think the author of Matthew got the idea for the transfiguration? And why only the elite saw it? The ones who want you to believe their stories and therefore grant them power to rule?

  60. SidDhartha1953  March 11, 2017

    It’s interesting that I seem to be moving in the opposite direction vis a vis my attitude toward Christianity. When I decided, about 19 years ago, that I didn’t believe a word of what Jesus or his followers, then and now, believed about the nature of things, I decided I was definitely not a Christian and had no desire to be one. I still don’t believe a word of it, but more and more I am coming to think of myself as a Christian again. My rationale seems to be that Jesus, like 100% of the people in his world, was operating from a position of ignorance about the nature of reality, the laws of science, etc. But in spite of that, maybe for reasons that have nothing at all to do with one’s beliefs about matters of fact, Jesus was predisposed to conduct himself and taught others to conduct themselves according to an ethic of radical love. I find that a more important criterion of what it is to be Christian than any statements of fact that may be true or false; and those teachings on love are just as valid in a universe with no God, no purpose, and no meaning other than the meaning we create for ourselves, as they would be in the imaginary world of Jesus or the Fundamentalists.
    It’s as if we were to say we can’t be scientists because scientists used to believe in a universe that had always been as it is now, but we now believe that it is expanding and had a definite beginning 13.8 billion years ago. It”s the methods, not the conclusions, that make a scientist a scientist.
    If Jesus had been born in the last 70 years, he might well have the same opinions about reality that most educated people outside the U.S. do. But I see no reason why he could not still teach unconditional love as a fundamental ethical principle and the path to a Republic of Heaven (credit to Philip Pullman) on earth.
    But I’m not trying to change your mind. I’m just articulating why I’ve changed mine — again.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 12, 2017

      My wife has been deeply moved by many of the teachings of Buddhism–not about facts of the world but about being kind, being compassionate. She employed them in her psychotherapy practice for years. But she would never call herself a Buddhist.

  61. dankoh  March 12, 2017

    I am a bit puzzled why you did not include Paul in your discussion of the imminent end of the world. Unlike Jesus, whose words were only recorded two generations later and subject to argument over whether he really said them, Paui’s writings were kept and, some at least, are judged authentic. And Paul is very heavily pushing the idea that he expects to be alive when the end of the world happens. (1 Thess. 4:15)

    Of course, he didn’t make it. Nor has it happened yet (though it seems to me right now that certain self-anointed apocalypticists have taken power in an effort to make sure it does happen). I just finished Augustine’s City of God, which as I see it is in large part an attempt to address this delay. Or rather to use that delay as a way of explaining why bad things happen to good Christians in this world. I wonder if you see it that way.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2017

      No need to be puzzled. Of course I think Paul thought the end was imminent. He says so!

  62. stevenpounders  March 14, 2017

    Hi Bart

    Just thought I should point out that in your quotation from Mark:

    “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste before you see the kingdom of God come in power.”

    You left out the key word – “death”.

    Really enjoyed this post!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      Right! Kind of an important word in the sentence. I didn’t mean cinnamon!

  63. sheila0405  April 17, 2017

    I’m late to this party. I can’t seem to stay on top of my many blogs. Based on the writings of early church fathers, this notion of an apocalyptic end of the earth and Jesus as ruler seems to have begun by Jesus. It bothered me a lot. If Jesus was God in the flesh, how is it he was so wrong? I was threatened with hell for doubting Jesus. So I was unable to extricate myself from Christianity until I was 60. Now I see the concept of a triune god as illogical. I am not grieved that I am no longer a believer. I am grieved about decades of a wasted amount of time when I could have better appreciated the only life I have. I appreciated the post.

    • HistoricalChristianity  April 18, 2017

      Your reading is too narrow. The apocalyptic worldview predated Jesus. The idea of Jesus as agent of apocalypse showed up at the very end of the first century, decades after his death. Paul doesn’t speak of him that way. You’re talking about ideas that are late additions to Christianity. Even gospel texts seeking to portray Jesus as seeking a role as a messiah show that role as accomplishing only a politically independent Israel, free of political control by Rome. That was to be right here on earth. Only toward the end of the first century, when it became undeniably obvious that it didn’t happen, did people spiritualize it, saying it would happen in an afterlife.

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