“Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 5:24 NRSV).
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 theological liberalism 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 errors. This changed his whole outlook and understanding and from that point he abandoned his fundamentalist Christian world view and began his career as an agnostic historian. He now teaches that as it is today the bible cannot be the word of God because it contains mistakes, discrepancies, and contradictions to such an extent that it cannot be trusted; there are no original manuscripts; the authors of most of its books are unknown to us; therefore God has not preserved the bible and we don’t know what was originally written in it.
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 to tell us who and what he is? 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, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to 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 ultimately 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: “Then she said, ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson!’ When he awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘I will go out as at other times, and shake myself free.’ But he did not know 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 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 “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To 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 you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, as though we were alike?” (Isa 46:5); “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ says the LORD” (Isa 55:8). “Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, ‘What are you making’? or ‘Your work has no handles?’ Woe to anyone who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’” (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.
The prophet Habakkuk (among others) echoes Professor Ehrman’s concerns: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted….Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:2-4, 13).
Habakkuk then did what Professor Ehrman should have done – he set himself to wait on God. “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint” (Hab 2:1). And his patience and his trust were vindicated; he got his answer from God: “Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their 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:
“I hear, and I tremble within; my lips quiver at the sound. Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me. I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us….Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights” (Hab 3:16-19).
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 doesn’t even know if God is he, she, or it.
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.
“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
“The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition copyright 1993 and 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.” “Published by Catholic Bible Press, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee 37214.