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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

170

Comments

  1. Avatar
    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.

  2. Avatar
    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.

  3. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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.

  4. Robert
    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.

  5. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.

  6. Avatar
    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!

  7. Avatar
    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.

        • Avatar
          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’.

          • Avatar
            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.

  8. Avatar
    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.

  9. 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.

  10. Avatar
    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….

      • Avatar
        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.

  11. Avatar
    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.

  12. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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

          • Avatar
            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!

        • Avatar
          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.

  13. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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.

    • Avatar
      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.

  14. Avatar
    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

  15. Avatar
    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.

  16. Avatar
    Jana  March 8, 2017

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

  17. Avatar
    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?

      • Avatar
        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.

    • Avatar
      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.

      • Avatar
        bcdwa288  March 12, 2017

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

  18. Avatar
    yes_hua  March 10, 2017

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

  19. Avatar
    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.”

    • Avatar
      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?

  20. Avatar
    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.

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