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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



  1. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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.

      • Avatar
        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.

      • Avatar
        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.

        • Avatar
          dankoh  March 12, 2017

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

          • Avatar
            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.

          • Avatar
            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.

        • Avatar
          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.

      • Avatar
        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.

        • Avatar
          sheila0405  April 17, 2017

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

    • Avatar
      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.

      • Avatar
        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.

        • Avatar
          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.

  2. 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.

  3. Avatar
    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.

  4. cheito
    cheito  March 6, 2017

    I meant to say unhistorical and unreliable sources

  5. Avatar
    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!

      • Avatar
        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.

          • Avatar
            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.

          • Avatar
            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.

  6. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.

  7. Avatar
    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’.

  8. Avatar
    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.

  9. Avatar
    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.

  10. Avatar
    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?

      • Avatar
        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


        • talmoore
          talmoore  March 8, 2017

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

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  March 8, 2017

          Not figurative, but legend, recorded tradition.

  11. Avatar
    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!

  12. Avatar
    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.

  13. Avatar
    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).

  14. Avatar
    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 !

  15. Avatar
    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?

  16. Avatar
    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?

    • Avatar
      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.

  17. Avatar
    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.

  18. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.

  19. Avatar
    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.

  20. 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.

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