I started writing this summary of my shift from belief to disbelief a while back ago and adding to it as I went along. I have not shared this before and I think it’s time. I have included affiliate links to the works I read along the way. If you feel like checking these out, please consider using the links provided as it will help continue this blog. It won’t cost you a penny more than just visiting Amazon yourself. Now to continue…
Part 1 can be found here: My Theological Journey – Part 1
2008 was almost over. When I moved to North Carolina, I went to my grandparent’s church since I lived with them. They were Independent Baptists and taught that the King James Version of the Bible was the only right version. This wasn’t the only issue I had with the church’s teachings, but it was certainly the biggest one. I got involved with the debate online on Baptist Board and I started reading books about King James Onlyism. Since I had discovered the principle of reading both sides of an argument, I decided to get books on both sides. (Granted, I was still quite biased and “knew” I was right on everything that I held an opinion on.) The two books I got were White’s The King James Version Only Controversy, which argued against the KJV only position, and Gail Riplinger’s The New Age Versions, which argued that the newer translations were from the devil (seriously). I read White’s entire book with enthusiasm and found him to be quite the intelligent man. Riplinger’s book, well, I found so many logical flaws and ad hominem attacks in just the first few pages that I got rid of that trash book after I skimmed through the rest. I was able to check most of the quotations she used through Google and found that they were usually distorted from the original source. I learned that you couldn’t always trust authors to get the facts straight.
Also, I heard a sermon for KJV Onlyism on Sermon Audio that argued that the newer versions of the Bible were based on the Alexandrian texts. The preacher (sorry, I could not figure out who by this time) argued that these texts were Gnostic and not truly Christian. I emailed a professor of Greek about this because I simply couldn’t find any information online about this. The professor challenged me to read the Gnostic texts and see for myself. I also became intrigued to learn Greek and Hebrew so that translators wouldn’t fool me ever again. That’s when I started considering a school that I could learn the biblical languages from. I also read through The Nag Hammadi Library, which I understood very little of at the time. My mind was so Christian religion oriented that I couldn’t grasp the deeper, philosophical ideas of those Gnostic texts. But time and experience would help me understand them later on.
What stuck with me: I learned that I needed to check author’s sources. I also (painfully) learned to love primary sources. I was becoming a researcher before I even realized it. Lastly, I started to investigate what the texts underlying the Bible actually said. Skepticism was in full swing – not of the Bible, but of the humans who tried to tell me what it said.
The next book that intrigued me was N. T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope. It argued quite well that the Bible says very, very little about what happens when a person dies. Instead, the Bible focuses on the resurrection of the body after death. Does the soul go to heaven upon death? The Bible doesn’t say much and the evidence for it is wrapped up in resurrection talk. It was a revelation to me. While Wright argued that yes, people’s souls return to God, my previous thoughts about monism stuck out. One Christian group, the Seventh-Day Adventists, taught that Christians were stuck in “soul sleep” until the resurrection and that idea seemed more correct to me than waking up in heaven upon death. I never really engaged in any of that group’s doctrines. In time, I would find myself to unsuccessful in claiming a strict monistic view of human nature from the Bible alone. But my understanding of computers, networks, and neuroscience had me questioning the soul.
I also came across an interesting blog by Bert Gary called “Are Kids’ Christmas Plays Biblical?” that argued that the Christmas story I knew was entirely wrong. And that blog was very convincing. There was no inn or innkeeper. Translators had intentionally used “inn” instead of “upper room” (as they do later on in Luke) to secure the traditional tale. I actually did further research on this and wrote a paper in 2014 called Reevaluating the Nativity, which is now here on Academia.edu
What stuck with me: Heaven is not the priority of the Bible. In the New Testament, it’s all about the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment as well as the coming Kingdom of God on earth.
At a guess, the next step took place around March 2009. I started reading the works of Bart Ehrman. At first, I didn’t agree with much of what he said concerning the Bible, but I gradually latched onto some of his more valid arguments. I have read so much since that time that the chronology falls apart, but I will try my best. I know that I read Jesus Interrupted, Lost Christianities, and Misquoting Jesus. To spare the world of everything that I learned in those books, let’s just say that I saw issues with biblical translations now. Adding all of my thoughts and discoveries up to this point, I saw that Christianity wasn’t set in stone until a lot of time after Jesus. I also realized that a lot of theological ideas like the divinity of Christ and the Trinity were not constructed until later. I thought about that first book, Pagan Christianity, and how it didn’t investigate far enough. It challenged the tithe, paid ministers, etc. But I wondered if the book had stopped short. What about the Trinity? It’s missing from the Bible and the passages and logic used to build the theological concept are challengeable. On one car trip with my brother-in-law, I mentioned that I didn’t think the Trinity made any sense. I learned that most people weren’t ready to challenge what the church said.
What stuck with me: I was becoming a “radical” in my theology. I doubted that the Trinity made any sense. I also no longer trusted every passage in the Bible. I no longer put much faith in translators or tradition.
I finally started school at Piedmont Baptist College (later Piedmont International University, now Carolina University) so I could learn Greek and Hebrew, not to mention get a handle on how to understand the Bible. On a less noble note, I figured it would be a quick way to finally finish a college degree since I already “knew so much” about the Bible. I learned quickly that I knew a good bit, but not a whole lot about the Bible. I especially had to deal with the fact that I could never really apply the Bible to my life beyond certain moral lessons. Even those seemed limited too. It had been that way for me for quite some time, but now at Piedmont, I really felt the guilt of being what I called a “faithless Christian.” A faithless Christian is one who intellectually believes in God, but does not really find that knowledge useful or applicable to their life.
After seriously considering God’s foreknowledge and predestination, I came to an unusual conclusion (at least in my opinion). I found that a person could never really know the answer because the Bible wasn’t clear. I still saw the Bible as a composite that had the answers spread across the books. Later, I would find that the authors of the different books didn’t completely agree with one another about God and life. Another discovery I found was that praying made no sense. If God knew everything, especially if he has always known everything, then he would know what I needed and give it to me. If I didn’t get what I wanted, then God said “no” to it and that was that. Why would God want to change his mind? If he knew everything, then he knew what was best. I especially thought about Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham begged God to spare the city if a certain number of righteous men were found within it. God said, “yes,” all the way down to just a handful, but there was only Lot, Abraham’s cousin. God knew that Lot was the only one and that the answer to Abraham was worthless. God was going to destroy the cities. It was his will. On top of all of this, I also realized that I had never really seen clear evidence that prayer did anything. I certainly never felt like I had ever received and answer to so many heartfelt, tearful prayers. Maybe I didn’t believe enough? I thought I was far more mindful of obeying God than my family or peers in my younger years. Indeed, I was quite the little legalist. After so much time of God being silent, I too became silent.
What stuck with me: I had a good bit to learn about the Bible and prayer didn’t really seem to matter if God had already decided to do something or not do something. (Not to mention that every sports event has people claiming that God helped their team win for some reason – because God loves sports?)
As I learned Greek, I realized that my hate of the King James Version was superficial in a number of ways and understandable in others. The KJV was similar in sentence structure as the Greek text, for example. On the other hand, the underlying Greek text of the KJV was useless in some places. Another lesson from Greek was that I liked knowing another language, but I sucked at it without help. I figured that minimal knowledge would be enough to get by with for my intentions of understanding early Christianity and heresies.
I read a number of books over the next few years, especially by atheists or agnostics. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something correct in what they were saying, but I was still not convinced of evolution. It was a huge stumbling block ever since I had a religious hate of it in the first grade (I mistakenly thought my teacher said that a grain of sand changed into a monkey and then into a person). So I picked up Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. I actually fell in love with the elegance of the theory of evolution after I understood it. It made so much sense. I also could finally appreciate Dawkins since he writes beautifully in his field in biology (rough theology/philosophy though) But after all of this time of hating it so fervently, I couldn’t come to believe it. It still had flaws and holes that were quite damning. I also read Jonathan Safarti’s The Greatest Hoax on Earth? to counter what I had just read. Safarti raised some good points, but not really good enough. Or maybe it was that my hate had subsided and I could (finally) rationally think about evolution. To be honest, the thing I absolutely hate about it even today is what it means. It means that there is no purpose and that life is finite. Science in general also meant not having the whole truth and being okay with that. Theology, in contrast, claims to know the absolute truth with little room for argument. It would take time before I would be comfortable with all that science claimed. After all, my whole life had been a search for meaning and truth. Now the answers that were haunting me were that I couldn’t absolutely find them.
What stuck with me: Evolution was no longer the absolute enemy. Science doesn’t need to have the entire picture correct to be correct. Instead, science must work towards finding the truth. But I also realized that science is based on a different underlying philosophy than religion – not entirely different, but irreconcilable in their absolute states.
The more I learned, the more I doubted. I started really digging into Bart Ehrman’s books. How Jesus Became God solidified my belief that the Trinity was a later construction based on the desire of Christians to deify Christ. The Gospel of John is the only book in the New Testament that claims that Jesus is God, the rest of the books make Jesus subservient to the Father. Forged by Ehrman revealed how it was common for books in antiquity to be forged by imposters. For instance, most mainstream scholars do not attribute the books of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus to the historical Paul. They appear to be written in the second century – long after the death of Paul around 64 CE. From reading the Nag Hammadi library, I could testify to the existence of Forgeries. Many gnostic texts claim to have authors would have been dead for centuries before the texts were written. And it’s not only gnostic texts, but Jewish texts as well. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain texts that claim to be written by Enoch, Elijah, Joseph, Judah, and others. If some of biblical books could lie about their authorship, then why are the considered the word of God?
The Text of the New Testament (I would highly recommend today) written by both Ehrman and Bruce Metzger showed me how the development of the New Testament canon was a debate, not a cakewalk. Some books had serious trouble getting into the canon (Revelation) and others had to be worked out (Gospel of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermes).
What stuck with me: In ancient times, people would write under the names of authority figures to get others to believe their position. I would have to verify whether I could trust certain books within the Bible or not. This also meant I couldn’t trust the process that collected the Bible into one book.
That’s it for now. I’ll get us caught up to present date by next post. Thanks!