Bart Ehrman: Why he Lost his Faith

Bart Ehrman tells us that he began as a “born-again” Christian in high school.  At 17 years of age he went to Moody Bible Institute where, he tells us, he became passionate in his quest to know more about the bible.  From there he went to Wheaton College and then to Princeton College, an institution well known for its unbelief and critical views of scripture, and where his faith and understanding of the bible totally crashed.  He tells us “And so I came to Princeton Theological Seminary young and poor but passionate, and armed to take on all those liberals with their watered-down view of the Bible.  As a good evangelical Christian I was ready to fend off any attacks on my biblical faith.  I could answer any apparent contradiction and resolve any potential discrepancy in the Word of God…Some things didn’t go as planned.  What I did learn at Princeton led me to change my mind about the Bible.  I did not change my mind willingly – I went down kicking and screaming.  I prayed (lots) about it, I wrestled (strenuously) with it, I resisted it with all my might.  But at the same time I thought that if I was truly committed to God, I also had to be fully committed to the truth.  And it became clear to me over a long period of time that my former views of the Bible as the inerrant revelation from God were flat-out wrong (ibid p xi; emphases mine).

Further on in the book (p 275-277) he writes “You might think that someone who came to realize that Christianity was a human creation would decide to opt out of the Christian faith, quit the Church, and start doing something else with his Sunday mornings.  But it didn’t work that way for me…I came to think of the Christian message about God, Christ, and the salvation he brings as a kind of religious “myth”, or group of myths…I continued to believe in a literal God, though I was less and less sure what could be actually said about him (or her or it).  And I continued to believe that Jesus himself certainly existed…Jesus’ death was not a myth, but the idea that it was a death that brought about salvation was a myth… I believed that his example of self-sacrifice made Christ a being worthy of worship, and I felt that his was an example for me to emulate…Salvation, for me, became less and less a question of whether I would go to heaven or hell when I die.  I came to realize that these concepts were also, in a sense, myths…My point here is that I came to think that the historical-critical approach to the New Testament had not destroyed my faith; it had deepened my faith and made me more sophisticated in the way I thought and talked about God, his world, his Christ, his salvation.  Yes, this way of thinking about the world was human-made” (emphases mine).

Professor Ehrman tells us that he is now agnostic but insists that it wasn’t the “discovery” that the bible is not “the inerrant revelation of God” that robbed him of his faith.  He writes “It is hard for me to pinpoint the exact moment that I stopped being a fundamentalist who believed in the absolute inerrancy and verbal inspiration of the Bible…For me, it started making less and less sense to think that God had inspired the very words of the text if we didn’t actually have these words, if the texts had in fact been changed…As time went on my views continued to evolve.  I did not go from being an evangelical to an agnostic overnight…I did become increasingly liberal in my views…the Bible seemed to me to contain inspired literature…but it was still the product of human hands…There came a time when I left the faith.  This was not because of what I learned through historical criticism, but because I could no longer reconcile my faith in God with the state of the world that I saw all around me…There is so much senseless pain and suffering in the world that I came to find it impossible to believe that there is a good and loving God who is in control“ (Ehrman p15-17; emphases mine).

What Really Happened to Bart Ehrman?

Professor Ehrman insists: “What I did learn at Princeton led me to change my mind about the Bible”.   And what he learned at Princeton was that the bible contains mistakes, discrepancies, and contradictions to such an extent that it cannot be trusted.  And when a person loses confidence in the bible, their whole view of Christianity changes, as he admits his did.  If we can’t trust the bible, how can we believe what it says?  And why should we?  And, as the whole bible is about Jesus Christ, how can we believe in him when we don’t have a bible anymore?  How can one believe anything about Christ and Christianity if they can’t believe the bible?  Jesus said to the Pharisees, those “experts” on the bible, those scholars who had spent their lives mastering the scriptures so that they could tell you the middle word of the bible and other such useless information, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they that testify of me.  And ye will not come to me that ye might have life” (Jn 5:39-40).  So if you doubt the bible, which is the same thing as rejecting it, you cannot see Jesus – and he is at the centre of the bible!  He is its heart!

Professor Ehrman admits he changed his mind about the bible.  He went to Princeton as a believer in Jesus and the bible but while he was there, he changed his mind, and instead of being a bible believer, he became a bible doubter.  He says “it became clear to me over a long period of time that my former views of the Bible as the inerrant revelation from God were flat-out wrong”.  And, as a natural consequence, he stopped believing in Jesus.  He says, “I came to think of the Christian message about God, Christ, and the salvation he brings as a kind of religious “myth”, or group of myths…..Jesus’ death was not a myth, but the idea that it was a death that brought about salvation was a myth….Salvation, for me, became less and less a question of whether I would go to heaven or hell when I die.  I came to realize that these concepts were also, in a sense, myths…”

And so, while Professor Ehrman seems blind to the fact, it was at this point that he lost his faith and lost salvation.  His collapse of confidence in the inerrancy of the bible (the written Word of God) caused a collapse of faith in Jesus (the living Word of God), which led to his abandoning Jesus.  Jesus had become nothing more than an example, someone or something to emulate.  But it took fifteen years for him to acknowledge to himself that this is what had happened.  He lied to himself during those fifteen years, telling himself that he was still a Christian.  But without a right view of Jesus and the bible, his idea of what a Christian is was just that – his idea.  Indeed, everything he believed about God, Jesus, Christianity, the bible, heaven, hell – it was all just his idea; there was no longer any substance to what he believed.  And so, after fifteen years, he felt safe enough or disillusioned enough to deny God altogether, justifying it by saying that because of all “the senseless pain and suffering in the world that I came to find it impossible to believe that there is a good and loving God who is in control”.

A Christian Without a Bible

I’m surprised that Professor Ehrman seems to actually believe that the reason he became agnostic was the “senseless pain and suffering in the world” – I would have thought that the discovery that the bible was wrong and full of errors would be enough reason for that.  But this is the way of self-deception.  He admits he had already lost the faith in God which results in absolute trust in him when he “stopped being a fundamentalist who believed in the absolute inerrancy and verbal inspiration of the Bible”.  Although he says he continued as a Christian for the next fifteen years, the foundation was gone and it was only a matter of time before he was confronted by a challenge to his “faith” sufficiently strong to bring it down around his ears.  The jellyfish type of faith he had adopted meant he had been playing religious games all that time, but true faith had departed from him (or rather, he had abandoned it) long since.  It reminds me of when Samson’s hair had been shorn while he slept on Delilah’s lap: “And she said, The Philistines be upon thee, Samson.  And he awoke out of his sleep, and said, I will go out as at other times before, and shake myself. And he wist not that the LORD had left him (Judges 16:20).

The kind of faith that Professor Ehrman was left with is feeble and doesn’t have the strength to lift the skin off a rice pudding.  No wonder he finds it “impossible to believe that there is a good and loving God who is in control”.  His liberal theology has emasculated God and now, when he turns to him, he finds an effeminate god who sits helplessly in a mythological heaven, unable or unwilling, or too callous, to do anything about suffering in this world.  He’s robbed God of his sovereignty and power and justice, and then blames him for not doing anything.  And he’s reduced Jesus Christ to nothing more than a good example.  But this raises a question – if the bible is just a book written by men, and is full of contradictions and errors, how does Professor Ehrman know that Jesus is a good example, because the bible is where we get our knowledge of Jesus from in the first place?  So, in order to maintain some kind of religion which he likes to think of as Christianity, he’s invented his own god to replace the one he’s abandoned, and his own religion to replace the one he’s junked, thus replacing a myth with a lie.

The problem for Professor Ehrman is that when he rejected the written Word, he concurrently rejected the living Word, and from that point he was on his own and had to resort to his own devices in trying to understand what he thought were problems about the Bible.  He seems never to have met or known the resurrected Jesus – if he had, he would never have abandoned him, and the discrepancies in the bible would not have been an issue so serious that he would lose his faith.

Meanwhile he condescendingly allowed Jesus to have existed and died, while simultaneously robbing his death of any effective power in saving sinners, reducing it to mythology status.  And now, in Professor Ehrman’s new theology, Jesus is no longer the only way to God (Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12); he’s just a good bloke who has to compete with other religious figures in history for the allegiance of the people he’s created, and we can serve him or not, as our fancy takes us, with no punitive consequences.  Professor Ehrman’s religion has nothing upon which needy sinners can hook their faith.  It is jellyfish theology which is slippery and insubstantial and which melts away in the heat of the sun.  He’s taken away the core of Christianity and the gospel and left the husks – a Jesus who was just a nice man, and an external and gutless religion.

The Absolute Sovereignty of God

Professor Ehrman says he can’t believe that there is a kind and loving God in control of the world.  He refuses to acknowledge that God is sovereign over his creation, and that he rules it in power and with justice and love and mercy and wisdom.  If he accepted this, he would have viewed the problem of suffering in a different light; and he would also have understood that God is God and he owes us nothing.  It is God who sets the rules, God who sets the standard, who IS the standard, and he doesn’t dance to our tune.  He is not awed or intimidated or shamed into conforming to the standards of finite human beings.  We can’t impose our standards onto God – far from it!  From ancient times we read “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.  I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isa 45:22-23).

And who do Bart Ehrman and the atheists and the sceptics and the agnostics and the ex-Christians think they are, telling God what he should be like?  Who are they to say how he should act?  His challenge to them is “To whom will ye liken me, and make me equal?” (Isa 46:5); “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD” (Isa 55:8).  “Woe to him that striveth with his Maker!  Let the potsherd strive with the potsherd of the earth.  Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou?” (Isa 45:9).

Vital importance of the bible

It seems likely that Professor Ehrman stopped reading his bible well before he consciously abandoned God…but then, why would he want to read it?  His bible has nothing left to offer anyone.  But I believe that if he was reading the bible with right understanding of right theology, he would never accuse God of being unkind or unloving; he would never think that the senseless evil and suffering in the world was out of control; he would have been aware that God is in control of his creation, and that he governs with mercy as well as justice; he would have been aware that the suffering in the world is because we live in a fallen world; as my wife observed as we discussed this issue, God gave us a perfect world to live in but we ruined it, and now we have to suffer the consequences of what we did in Adam.  Professor Ehrman couldn’t make sense of the world because he had previously discarded the only thing that explains it all, i.e. the bible, and the God revealed in the bible.

Habakkuk’s example

The prophet Habakkuk (among others) echoes Professor Ehrman’s concerns: “O LORD, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!  Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention.  Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth….Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” (Hab 1:2-4, 13.

Habakkuk then did what Professor Ehrman should have done – he set himself to wait on God.  “I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved” (Hab 2:1).  And his patience and his trust were vindicated; he got his answer from God: “And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.  For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.  Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:2-4).

God then goes on to condemn the wicked and to pronounce coming judgment on them.  The prophecy ends with a prayer from Habakkuk, most likely as a conclusion to his dilemma and his almost despair, which is now replaced by a different state of mind as he recounts God’s glorious acts of power.  He stands in awe of God.  He says “O LORD, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid….my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself”.  And from here he exults and rejoices in God, and is determined to do so even if things continue to go badly.  He says “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the field shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.  The LORD God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places” (Hab 3:2, 16-19).

So, although Habakkuk started off with what might be called a crisis of faith, he seeks God through prayer and his faith is strengthened so that he is able to wait on God in faith and expectation.  In the end his focus is taken off the suffering that surrounded him and becomes fixed on God, thus making him determined and able to rejoice even if the whole land fell into disaster.

If only Professor Ehrman had done the same!  But instead he gave up.  In the end his newfound faith in the “mythology” of the bible was not able to sustain him when he needed it, and now he has nothing – he literally doesn’t even know if God is he, she or it.

Conclusion

Professor Ehrman lost hope because he first lost confidence in his bible.  He abandoned God and relegated him to mythology status when he “discovered” that the bible is full of errors and contradictions.  Although he insists that he continued as a Christian for fifteen years after this “discovery”, it was the end for him.  He could no longer call himself a Christian when he denied everything in and about the bible, because it is the foundation of Christianity and the gospel.  If you take away the foundation of any structure, it collapses.  Professor Ehrman took away the foundation of Christianity, and his Christianity collapsed and became a useless pile of rubble.  He dwelt among the rocks and holes of a fallen edifice for the next fifteen years, but his Christianity was gone; it wasn’t even the semblance of Christianity.  It was a mythology of his own making, and ultimately it let him down.  He finally stopped pretending when he couldn’t make his human understanding of God match up with the God revealed in the bible.

 

References

“Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” 2010, p 16-17, by Bart Ehrman, publ., HarperCollins Publishers, NY

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