*If you’re reading this and don’t agree with the assessments that are presented, that’s fine. I’m not trying to convince anyone. However, a simple Google search will take you to countless references to all of the concepts that I have presented in this post. I will post some links at the bottom for those of you who would like to do further research, since I don’t present a complete case for any of this. There are references to informative books throughout the post as well. My intent with this post is not to present a case for anything, but to detail my own experiences.
One of my favorite memories of my time in the United Pentecostal Church is when I didn’t shave for about two weeks. I let my beard grow a little and went to church that way, knowing that was against their “holiness standards”.
I had already done my homework. The pastor, had distributed copies of some Bible software that allowed us to search the Bible for specific search terms. This was before smartphones and Bible websites. His intent was to allow us to study the Bible more easily and efficiently. Little did he know that it would lead to some in his flock finding the actual truth. I had been having misgivings about the holiness standards for a while, so I started searching the Bible for what it said about beards. I found the story about one of the kings being anointed with oil so that it ran off of his beard and the section of the law that said not to round the corners of your beard. I figured that you would have to have a beard not to round the corners… So I stopped worrying about their made-up rule and let mine grow. The second Sunday I came to church like that, one of the assistant pastors called me into one of the empty rooms and told me that Pastor Sheppard had asked him to speak to me about the standards and my facial hair. He reminded me that “if you are in a leadership position, you are expected to follow the standards.” At the time, I was “in charge” of the sound booth and media team. Anyway, he then tells me, “We both know there isn’t a scripture in the Bible that forbids men to have a beard, but the Pastor was put in position by god, and he doesn’t want leaders in the church to wear beards.” The scripture they used to justify this was “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft”, so logically, if the pastor makes up a random rule, you have to follow it or you’re going to hell.
That’s the reason this is my favorite memory. The pastor’s favorite minion admitted (in so many words) that this beard rule was made up. Sure, it’s pretty much universal to all of the UPC, but it was still made up. What really cracks me up, looking back on it now, is that he didn’t have the balls to come to me himself. He sent his lackey to do the dirty work.
So this got me to really thinking about the other holiness standards and all the other doctrinal teachings specific to the UPC and Oneness Pentecostalism. If the beard thing was a sham, who’s to say the rest weren’t? So I really began to search the Bible and commentaries in earnest. What I discovered is that every issue that sets the UPC apart from main-line Pentecostalism is a sham. The dresses, the make-up, the “oneness of god”, three-step salvation plan, the way they use scripture to justify these doctrines… all a sham. Even a casual reading of the scriptures they use to support these doctrines shows that they are using them out of context to keep people in line, and thus in fear of going to hell no matter how well they follow the rules.
At this point in this journey I ordered the book Christianity Without the Cross by Thomas Fudge. Dr. Fudge does an exemplary job of explaining the origins of the Pentecostal movement, and in doing so, he shows their weaknesses. After much research, even at the UPC archives, he discovered that of the group of men who started this movement (Pentecostalism in general, not just the UPC), only one had any college education. He didn’t finish college. Most hadn’t even finished high school. If I remember correctly, two or three had graduated high school. Here’s the significance: if they didn’t have an education, specifically training in areas that are relevant to understanding ancient texts for their intended meaning, how could they understand the ancient languages, historical context, grammatical context, exegetical analysis, and other important skills necessary to properly understand what the Bible was saying? I propose that they couldn’t have. But they sure made up a religion based on their misunderstandings of the texts… and I was in it.
It was around this time that I quit the UPC. We searched for a church and started going to one of our local Assemblies of God churches. At first, I was relieved to be able to come to church and not be stressed out by all the drama. I enjoyed the services. I started feeling refreshed. But after a short time, I started hearing things from the preachers that still didn’t seem quite right. I apparently still had unanswered questions. And so my research and studying continued.
One day out of the blue, I ended up at a book store and started rummaging through the religion section. I came across Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. This book blew me away. He shows how the Bible has been changed throughout the centuries. He gives examples from the ancient manuscripts that survive and shows how there are actually more differences in these manuscripts than there are words in the Bible.
It took me a while to fully grasp this and its importance, but I finally accepted that the Bible is a work of men (not god, as I had previously been told) and it contains mistakes. In many cases, we do not know what the authors really said, although modern analysts are still working on it, trying to figure out what were likely the original words.
In a subsequent book, Forged, Dr. Ehrman shows that many of the books in the new testament were not written by who we commonly attribute them to. For example, we do not know who wrote the four gospels, and thus the book of Acts, since it was written by the same person who wrote Luke. All of the gospels were written decades after the life of Jesus, so they cannot be accurate, as they were written from memory. More importantly, they were written in Greek, which makes it unlikely that they were written by eyewitnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus, since all of his followers were uneducated, Aramaic-speaking Jews who did not have the capacity to learn to write with such an educated style as is represented in the gospels. So the significance of this is that we do not have any eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, and the accounts that we do have, decades removed from the actual events, contain contradictions of not only the original manuscripts, but also the thoughts and intent of the various authors.
After reading Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted, I sent an email to Dr. Ehrman asking if he could recommend books that dealt with the old testament similar to how he wrote about the new testament. One of the books he recommended was Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliott Friedman. This book shows how the Pentateuch came to us, and how flawed it is. Although we usually consider Moses to be the author, it turns out that it is a compilation of at least three earlier works (that contradict each other) that were then combined and edited by a fourth author. All of this gives us a mishmash of the oral histories, traditions, and myths of these three combined works, which when taken together seem to lose their deeper meaning and significance to the people who they originally came from. The writings from the northern kingdom of Israel lose their context and significance when combined with the writings of the kingdom of Judah. The priestly writings show the struggle for political power that was taking place between the different groups of priests after the kingdoms were combined. Then the edits made by the redactor seems to wash out every other point of view but that of the priests in power at the time of Ezra, who won out to all the other groups seeking to control the kingdom. It is the redactor’s story that stands, while the stories of the other groups are lost among the chop suey of what is left.
I find it interesting that most run-of-the-mill Christians say that the Bible is perfect and without error, since it was divinely inspired, yet the four accounts of the birth of Jesus have very different details from each other. The four accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus have different, contradicting details. The two accounts of the creation have different, contradicting details, and the two accounts of Noah’s ark have different, contradicting details. The two versions of the ten commandments are even different. But when most run-of-the-mill Christians are faced with these facts, they either argue that they are not contradictions because “the Bible contains no errors, so those aren’t errors (which is circular reasoning), or they just don’t know what to make of it; “I’ve noticed stuff in the Bible like that before, but it doesn’t shake my faith.” But that seems to be the Christian way; the verse says, “lean not on your own understanding”, so hey, let’s not use our reasoning to think about this verse that directly contradicts this other verse, and follow the logic that ends up that there is an error in the “holy” scriptures. We wouldn’t want to do that now, would we? But it seems that with so many authors throughout the centuries, what we have left is a collection of works that were written by many individuals, and in many cases added to and revised, that are from many points of view, and as expected of any such collection, it contains contradictions, different points of view, and errors.
After reading Friedman’s book, I came across The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein, which gives an overview of the modern archaeological studies of the Levant that are relevant to the history of the Jewish people, and thus the Bible itself. As it turns out, modern archaeology cannot find any evidence from many of the great biblical stories that are supposed to be historical events, according to Christianity. The great flood, the exodus from Egypt, King David, and King Solomon are just a few of these biblical events and persons that archeologists have found no evidence for, and in fact they have found disconfirming evidence that shows these events, as portrayed in the Bible, could not have happened. Evidence shows that Jerusalem was a small village for much of its biblical era history, so Kings David and Solomon would not have been as powerful as depicted in the Bible stories, and whether they even existed or not is still up for debate. Further, archaeological evidence from other lands such as Egypt and Babylon, many times, also show that the Biblical stories could not have happened as depicted in the Bible.
From reading these books and learning the valuable, mind changing information within their pages, I started looking at other versions of Christianity than the Pentecostal church. After all, the pentecostal church was created just over 100 years ago by some guys who had a dream. I figured that a church with more historical ties to ancient Christianity might be closer to “truth” than what I presently had. Although my faith was wavering, it was around this time that I started calling myself an agnostic Christian. I still had faith, but it was definitely not the same as it had been before all of this new information had come to me. I was pretty sure we couldn’t prove or disprove the existence of god, but I still believed.
I read books about the Episcopal church and the Orthodox church, among others, along with uncountable articles and reference pages about them. What I eventually came to conclude is that Emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity and subsequent power positioning of the clergy fucked up Christianity for all time. The practices from the Orthodox church seem to come to us from the time when Constantine put the clergy in favored position. Looking at the writings of church fathers from this time you can see the arguments that were occurring among them about what “true” Christianity was. Earlier, even the author of James (which probably wasn’t James, the brother of Jesus) disagrees with Paul over doctrine, and this carries over to the time of Constantine, when the clergy had the power to decide which version of Christianity became official, and which numerous other versions would be quashed and their propagators killed, exiled, or imprisoned. It is most certain that the doctrines held “untouchable” by most of the church originated from this time when the original creeds were formulated and codified in order to express what constituted orthodoxy, and what was blasphemy. It seems the winners always get to write the history books, and the church fathers who won these argument got to write the church’s history and forced a different version of Christianity on the world than had originally existed, if there even was such a thing as “original” Christianity.
So it seems Christianity was on it’s last leg for me. But there had to be something that Christianity could hold on to that would make it still believable. I knew there had to be something. Even in this new liberal version of the Christian faith that I had come to adopt, there had to be some evidence that something about the Christian faith was worthy of holding on to it. For a while, I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then it occurred to me that the prophecies of Isaiah and Daniel pretty much cement the deal. Or did they. I needed to bone up on my old testament prophets.
As it turns out, Daniel was written far after the time most Christians claim it was written, and the prophecies about Jesus being the messiah were actually written in reference to Antiochus Epiphanes. King A.E. was the “abomination of desolation” that Daniel wrote about. Isaiah does prophesy a messiah, but it’s not Jesus. It’s someone who would be born in the time frame of the events written about in Isaiah. When he prophesied that “a virgin shall conceive”, etc., he was speaking to King Ahaz about the messiah that would save Jerusalem from the attack of King Rezin and Pekah. In addition, there are problems with the translation of the original Hebrew word that has been translated as “virgin”. In addition, Isaiah is generally accepted by scholars to have been written by at least three different people during three different time periods. A lot of Christians get upset and say that you have to read the scriptures in context. But it seems that they are leaving out the historical context, the grammatical context, and the context of the work being read and it’s origins and provenance.
There are many, many more examples of discrepancies that I have found in Daniel and Isaiah, which altogether show that they could not have been prophesying about Jesus. It seems that those who wrote the new testament works scoured the old testament for anything that could be remotely linked to Jesus, then made the old testament verses fit. Some of the new testament authors apparently didn’t understand what they were reading from the old testament, but made it fit anyway. Take for example Matthew’s two donkeys that Jesus rode into Jerusalem simultaneously, among many others. Most telling, I think is the reasons Jews give for not accepting Jesus as the messiah. He doesn’t fulfill all of the requirements as laid out by the old testament… and who should know better than the Jews?
So where did that leave me? I belonged to a religion whose ancient supporting text had no provenance, was full of errors, discrepancies, and contradictions. Archaeological evidence didn’t support its claims, and even its own ancient supporting text didn’t support its claims.
Moreover, I had been questioning a lot of other things about the religion. Prayer, for instance. The Bible has several verses that outright say that if you pray for something, it will happen. Jesus himself said, “ask anything in my name, and I will do it.” This has never been the case in my life. Whenever I pray for something, it nearly never happens. The few times that something does happen, it’s not the way I asked for it, and it usually appears to be more coincidence than divine intervention. The author over at Why Won’t God Heal Amputees covers this topic in more detail than I care to. Needless to say, I took this point of view into consideration.
I found several other websites with thought provoking information. Some of the most useful were Truth Saves, God is Imaginary, The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager, Danizier, Errancy.org, and the article on Why Jesus could not have been the messiah at Debunking Skeptics. After much reading and studying and comparing these and other authors’ arguments to the Bible and what Christian apologists have to say, I was pretty sure that Christianity is about as dead a religion as Mithraism, Roman mythology, voodoo, and all the others. It seems that those offering the argument against Christianity make sense and base their arguments on logic and fact, whereas the Christian defenders base their arguments on the Bible (which is, as we have seen, not reliable), and circular logic: “The Bible says it, so it’s true…”
At this point in my journey, I wasn’t comfortable with the term atheist. I’m still not sure I am. But I had stopped going to church. Just as it was when I left the UPC church years ago, not a single person has inquired as to why I’ve left. Only one single person has sent me a text message asking how I’m doing, but other than that, out of sight, out of mind. Personally, I think this is because Christians, deep down, know there is something wrong with the church they go to, as well as other Christians. So when someone leaves, it’s OK because everyone is in denial that there is anything wrong, and no one wants to upset the status quo: “Jesus still loves them anyway”, or “This church is full of good people, so I’ll stay despite the faults”. Very few actually want to look into the real reason behind why so few stay satisfied with a church very long.
A short time ago, I wound up in another book store on a Sunday morning, and started browsing through the religion section again. I came across the book The Outsider Test for Faith by John W. Loftus. Some of Loftus’ writings are also presented on his blog, Debunking Christianity. Loftus presents what he calls the outsider test to determine if your religion is “the one true religion”, or even worthy of following. The premise behind the test is for followers of a religion to take a step back and view their own religion as if they didn’t believe in it; a stretch by no small means. But now that I didn’t believe, I was able to see Christianity as it looks from the outside. Amazingly, I realized how silly it all seems: talking bushes, talking snakes, a virgin birth, a god-man who comes back from the dead after spending a few nights in the realm of the damned. As an outsider, these ideas seem as improbable as the many armed gods of India, Thor’s hammer, the sun chariot of ancient Greece, and the flying horse of Islam.
Loftus also makes a good point about the cultural basis of religion. We generally accept the religion of our parents and never investigate to see whether it makes sense or not… not really. If we do examine it, it’s from an insider perspective, which always makes our own religion make sense. But why do we reject every other religion? Because they don’t make sense. And from my point of view, Christianity doesn’t make sense.
So there you have it. The short version of why I am not a Christian. The evidence for christianity not only doesn’t stack up, but the evidence is in piles against it. There’s one more thing Loftus said that sticks with me. He said that most Christians will not consider their religion improbable until they realize it is impossible. That’s the way I went. I searched for every last shred of hope that Christianity was possible. It wasn’t until I had exhausted every possibility that Christianity was not a lie that I could admit to myself that I didn’t believe in it anymore. I held out hope to the end, but the evidence just doesn’t do anything to make Christianity believable. I can’t do it anymore.
Does this mean I’m an atheist? No. I’m still holding out hope for a god… or maybe this is just nostalgia. I think I like the term agnostic. I can’t prove god’s existence either way, so until he/she/it gives me reasonable evidence to believe in him/her/it, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing: using my brain and logic to figure out life as it comes along.