Why Did Bart Ehrman Lose 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 that when he came to Princeton Theological Seminary, he was aware of their liberal theology and prepared himself against it.  But, as one would expect when you go to such an institution, you will change.  And Ehrman did change his view of the bible.  He says he didn’t change his mind willingly but went down kicking and screaming.  He says he prayed, wrestled, resisted – but sadly, he still went down.  And finally he understood that his former view of the bible was wrong.  He rejected the orthodox understanding of God, Jesus, the gospel, the bible, heaven and hell, and replaced it with a myth – the lie of liberal theology.  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. 

What Really Happened to Bart Ehrman

What Professor Ehrman 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 think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.  And ye will not come to me, that ye may 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!

It would be presumptuous of me to disagree with Professor Ehrman as to what caused his loss of faith.  However, in the light of his own words in his book, I can’t help but believe 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 suffering in the world, he found it impossible to believe that a loving God was in control of it (Ehrman p.15-17).

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.  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 was departed from 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 the God of the bible 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 no one 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, and compare me, that we may be like?” (Isa 46:5); “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD” (Isa 55:8).  “Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker!  Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth.  Shall the clay say too him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?  Woe unto him that saith unto his father, What begettest thou? or to the woman, What hast thou brought forth?” (Isa 45:9-10). 

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 show 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” (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: O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy….When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble: when he cometh up unto the people, he will invade them with his troops”.  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 fields 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 is my strength, and he will make my feet like hind’s 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 sought God through prayer and his faith was strengthened so that he was able to wait on God in faith and expectation.  In the end his focus was taken off the suffering that surrounded him and became 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 new-found 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