Crazy Justifications

I’ve just read this “Contradictions in the Resurrection Accounts?” post at the Saints and Sceptics blog. I have followed their apologetics ministry for a while and, to their credit, they do seem to set out to address the objections people will bring up when they consider the Christian faith.

But this post really brought home to me the extent of the mental gymnastics which must be performed to ignore and dismiss the inconsistencies and variations that are contained within Christian scriptures.

The Resurrection is the central concept of the Christian faith. It institutes the age of salvation and sets up Christ as the ultimate sacrifice. But, as is clear from the blog post above, the variation in how this absolutely essential doctrine is recorded in the 4 different gospels is – when you stop and truly, honestly analyse it – utterly staggering.

I am really mindful of how I would have reacted to this post maybe 2 years or so ago. I know that it would have eased my concerns over how this story can be so different in different place, yet so pivotal. It would have given me a confidence that I was OK with what I believed and that there was justification for it. And it would have reenforced my views that people who cited all the inconsistencies and contradictions in scripture were just misguided secularists with their own agenda.

But my goodness, things are very different now. On reading the content of that post, you can only admire the determination of the writer in setting out their stall and sticking with it to the bitter end.

And I know that David Glass has no doubts over the acceptability and accuracy of what he has written. I don’t believe it’s intended but there’s a haughty dismissiveness in the tone of the post which seems slightly ignorant of the subject matter and the raised eyebrows caused by reading it.

However, the logic and explanations contained just flabbergast me now. I can think of no other way of putting it.

What always strikes me when you get into this level of analysis over what are clear differences is the way people abandon any concern for the original writings or language. There is so much work required to get the English texts to make any sense that context and history generally disappears. And the fact that books were not written and structured as they are in our King James-driven editions nowadays.

Let’s do the courtesy of actually looking at the arguments put forward:

  1. Women at the tomb:
    “The Gospels differ in terms of the women who went to the tomb on the Sunday morning… A contradiction? Hardly.”“…provided we permit the authors to be selective, there’s really not much of a problem.”

    Really? If we’re being utterly semantic about the meaning of the word “contradiction”, perhaps we have something to stand on. OK then. The issue is the specifics of exactly who was there and why the gospel writers made their particular selections of reporting the different attendees. I cannot comprehend why the stories need to be different – why did God inspire the writers in such a way as to raise so many questions? How did the writers settle on the women they did? Only Mary Magdalene has any further role in any version of the story, so why include or exclude any of the others?

  2. Reaction of the visiting women:
    “Mark says they fled from the tomb and ‘said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid’… Apart from Mark there is agreement that the women go to tell the disciples. Does Mark contradict these accounts? No. It seems fairly clear that all he means is that they didn’t speak to anyone on the way because they were afraid…”“There certainly is a significant difference between John’s account… But it is hardly a contradiction. A plausible reconciliation…[word salad]”

    No. I’m sorry. Mark clearly contradicts the other accounts. Mark also records that the visitors were told by the angel to go and tell the disciples, but apparently they wouldn’t disobey that command. So Mark’s record contradicts itself never mind the other 3! Working this round to anything other than a contradiction is a true feat of linguistic acrobatics.

  3. Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances:
    This whole section is a long collection of ifs, buts and maybes. Luke’s records were always meant to be followed up by Chapter 2 (i.e. the book of Acts). But the book states quite clearly that Jesus did lots to prove He was alive, so that’s alright. Luke has simply been selective over what he has decided to include in his narrative.

I can’t force myself to buy these explanations. There is too much effort required to make the components add up.

But the most striking and worrying aspect is that these 3 points are simply the tip of the iceberg with regards to resurrection inconsistencies and a proverbial drop in the ocean with regards to similar problems within the whole of Scripture. Yes, I know there are many with proposals for answers from many experts and scholars much more qualified than I, but there is a consistent requirement for hard work to get to the required destination.

And I mean no disrespect to either Saints and Sceptics or David Glass in particular – reading this just caused enough of a irritation in me to feel the need to articulate my thoughts.

Picking Your Fights

The Girls’ Brigade of Northern Ireland has hit the headlines round these parts this week because of this particular Belfast Telegraph news story. It has stirred a reasonable amount of debate on my Twitter feed which predominantly features ex-religious people and atheists. And whilst I can somewhat understand the outrage, there’s a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth with this one.

To their credit, GBNI themselves have responded, but I’m not convinced their news release has had the effect they were hoping for. They also seem to miss the point that their “clarification” simply backs up the headline rather than challenges it. I think they may have rushed it a little, but were probably under pressure to do so.

I also can’t help thinking there’s a little bit of subterfuge in the reporting of the story – a bit of a tabloid sensationalism in play – but I genuinely don’t know the ins and outs so that could be a rash and unfair assertion. The ‘Tele’ has been getting a bit of a bad rap in the past week for what some have called very biased reporting of the Ashers/Equality Commission court case. This has the whiff of something they’ve decided to jump on and run with in the interests of redressing their perception of impartiality and fairness.

I don’t mean to argue the story is invalid, just that the Belfast Telegraph have gone for a particularly sensationalist “Oh my goodness! Isn’t this terrible!” angle which doesn’t actually contribute towards the discussion we need to be having.

What has struck me is the level of offence taken that a Christian-based organisation (regardless of their “interdenominational” stance) would teach a basic Christian doctrine. I get a slight sense that a number of the most vocal respondents have had to perform a few leaps through a few hoops to get to the conclusions they have.

I understand the Christian doctrine of “no degrees/hierarchy of sin”. It is intended very much as a positive, not a negative (but I genuinely think that’s because most people haven’t thought it through to it’s logical conclusion). It is intended as a sales pitch to people which enforces the idea that no matter what they’ve done they will not be turned away from the club. That said, most people really only live it from the teeth out. Whilst God may be able to excuse or forgive anything, we humans are much more fickle.

I just wonder at the veracity of the pursuit being carried out towards GBNI in this particular case. I would propose that the vast majority of organisations (youth and otherwise) in any way associated with evangelical fundamentalist congregations around this country will actively teach this doctrine of all sins being equal in the eyes of God. It will be preached from various pulpits with alarming regularity on Sunday mornings. It will be taught in Seniors groups, women’s groups, youth and children’s group. Because the job is salesmanship – it’s about making “salvation” attractive and appealing and removing any barriers to entry.

I am uncomfortable in the way GB has been singled out and chased down on this subject. I feel that one particular parent has taken a very particular viewpoint on the way this particular subject has been relayed on to their child, and they’ve every right to be deal with that as they see fit. But escalating it to the authorities in this manner and following on with the press? Seems like a strange step to me. Seems like a slightly self-serving and agenda driven step.

How the Church teaches

Knowing what I do about methods of teaching within the church – having witnessed and delivered it for many years – I would have to side with the way the GB have stated it in their rebuttal. I find it unlikely that the subject would have been broached in the way the Telegraph’s headline has suggested it, but more likely in line with how GBNI have said. Fine details, yes, but still important.

For clarity, I do not wish to belittle or understate the Christian approach to what it considers sin and how it equates two things which the non-religious consider to be un-equatable. I do not mean to play down the effect on people who feel they cannot change who they are – nor do they feel they should have to! – to fit in with some arbitrary and constructed system. But to me, this is not a GB issue, it is an issue of the Christian faith.

What the church intends as positive is very much a negative, and that is because the premise exists and thrives on guilt. We are meant to feel guilty about the “sin” in our lives and make whatever changes are necessary to remove it.

Yes, the Christian faith considers many behaviours to be sin, and considers them all on the same level. Socially, this is utter madness – that is why we have a justice system which assigns punishments based on the socially-driven seriousness of a crime (flawed as it may be in some regards) and why the idea of God’s one-size-fits-all punishment for even the most insignificant of misdemeanours melts our brains when we sit down to think about it.

Are we being fair here?

Why have I titled this post as I have? Because there’s something uneasy about this episode and I don’t feel GBNI is the right target for this particular “fight”. I am inclined to think that the energy being expended in chasing, challenging and accusing them would be better spent on something which could have a more wide ranging and positive impact.

Targeting GB might affect that organisation in terms of bad press, but it will be viewed by the wider Christian family as an assault on that organisation rather than a critique of the logic and impact of preaching the idea that all sins are equal to a loving God. The church will rally around GB (cf. Ashers). But the most important bit here is that the church is highly unlikely to change its teaching because the conservative arm of Christianity – far and away the most dominant arm in Northern Ireland – still considers the Bible to be clear on homosexuality and will not alter that on the basis of what it will see as the next wave of lobby-driven persecution.

I hope it’s clear I have no love for the Christian faith, regardless of how much time I spent in it whilst growing up. I hope that I’m not seen as defending the indefensible. But we who object to the ideas of Christianity (particularly in this part of the world) also have to be fair and rational in standing up to what we perceive as wrong. And I just don’t feel we are in this instance.

Finding the Flaws: Inerrancy

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…

2 Timothy 3:16

One of the most foundational aspects of conservative, fundamentalist Christianity is the absolute and total acceptance that what Protestants consider to be the Scriptures are – to a word – inspired by the Spirit of the one, true, living God. That everything we read and use as the basis of our sermons has been laid on the heart of the writer, and that the writer of each book is generally known and unquestioned.

In some parts of the country, there is a sub-group who insist that the 16th century King James Version is the only acceptable English version of the Holy Word. I was never a subscriber to that view because I knew that none of the original texts nor original spoken words would have been in the English of a particular age. But the idea that God had inspired the underlying story telling made a certain amount of sense to me growing up.

I was aware, however, that many, many people pointed at Scripture and proposed a not insignificant number of inconsistencies, contradictions and inaccuracies. I heard most of them, and I scoffed heartily. I argued that these were matters of a little noun here and a bit of meaningless verbage there and none of them had any major impact on the narrative of the Bible as a whole. These damaging accusations were simply the stirrings of the unenlightened who didn’t get the important nuances and, of course, hated Scripture and the Christian religion built upon it.

As I hinted in my opening post, my endeavours at reading the Scripture from start to finish were one of the things that loosened the stick that was preventing the rock of my faith from rolling away. And one of the stories that really sticks in my head is the story of Abimelech in Genesis.

You remember Abimelech, don’t you? The guy to whom Abraham pretended that Sarah was his sister to protect them? And God held it against Abimelech?

Well, I’ve obviously known this story for years. But as I was reading through this story this time in the context of reading the book of Genesis within a daily plan, I got a strange sensation of having come across it before. And do you know what I discovered? I discovered I was right! To cut a long story short, this Wikipedia article fleshes out the details of what I came to understand about these wife-sister narratives (i.e. there are 3 of them in Genesis alone).

But…but…but…

I’m not sure I can quite get across the impact of this “kick in the teeth”. On the surface, you might not consider this on its own as terribly significant. But, to me, it was. It was massive. I suddenly began to think there was perhaps more to what people had been saying for such a long time. There were other examples, but this is the one that sticks most clearly in my mind. It acted as a prod for me to begin looking more deeply into Biblical contradictions than I had in the past.

And I really, really didn’t like what I found. Not so much from the point of view of the clear issues with our English Scriptures – I can now see those for myself quite clearly – but more from the perspective of how the Bible came to be in any form. When it was written, who it was written by, and the original manuscripts which have been critiqued to give us what we have now. Not to mention anything of the Apocrypha!

I’m going to go ahead and assume that few of us are directly involved in textual criticism of original Scripture sources. Oh, some of us may know Greek or Hebrew. Some of us may be able to read some words or phrases of the original manuscripts. I can’t, so again, I rely on experts to tell me the truth. And in this particular sphere, you can find an expert to tell you almost any variation of “the truth” that you could possibly imagine. Consensus is rare – well, at least from my point of view. The theological community claims to have all the evidence to back their stance and the non-religious community seems utterly convinced the pro-theological position is poppycock.

How can we know?

Given this collective uncertainty, or perhaps the knowledge of where we should look to get the right answers, I simply feel you have to look at things from your own point of reference. I know there are significant dangers in applying experience to anything for which a definitive truth exists – it’s rare for us to have enough of such experience in an adequately diverse range of subjects to reach what you’d call an educated and well-informed conclusion. I appreciate this is something I need to address in the coming weeks and months by reading and try to understand more of the history and origins of Scripture and the techniques of criticism which has given us what we have today.

Thinking back over my personal history of reading the Bible and very, very Christian Bible studies, I realise how flawed, shallow and biased they were. I realise how much I selectively glossed over the problems with what I was reading and how much of the Bible I didn’t actually know because it doesn’t fit into these well-formed walk-throughs.

I know that many, many scholars around the world have answers for most of these challenges, but they just don’t carry for me any more. I have come to think of the idea of Scripture being anything other than a constructed, manipulated, political tool as one of the most monumental leaps of faith imaginable.

Finding the Flaws: Prayer

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what exactly I’ve come to believe and why. I want to look at some of the key tenets of Christianity – that I have lived by for much of my life – and consider why they have suddenly become a problem to me. And I want to start with the topic of prayer.

As with most such central doctrines, the quantity of books and articles about the subject of prayer is staggering. I’ve read but a few of them. But I always looked for different literature in the hope of understanding why I struggled with the idea of prayer for a very, very long time. I have just never quite grasped how the omniscient, almighty, sovereign God could be influenced by the requests and pleadings of ignorant, selfish, narrow individuals.

Yes, No or Wait

I persevered with the idea, nonetheless. It was, after all, one of the things we had to do, if we wanted to call ourselves Christian. And there were rules about being reverent and thankful and not just treating God as a cosmic Santa Claus.

I brought the “requests of my heart” to Him in a way I understood to be the right way. I prayed with faith, always seeking to serve what I thought would be His will. And I waited on the answer. When things panned out as I had asked, I considered it that my request had been met with a “Yes”. When I got a “No”, well that was OK, too – I was obviously off-track with my requests and God was keeping me in line. When I couldn’t quite figure out whether I had an answer of any sort, I treated that as a “Wait”.

When I first started losing my faith, I repeatedly thought back to a number of occasions in my life where I had received what I thought at the time were reasonably stern “No!” answers from the Lord. At those times, it seemed like He knew His “plan for my life” better than I did and would take me there regardless of how much I resisted or misunderstood. They usually worked out quite positive for me, but I only ever realised this in hindsight. It’s interesting how much the Christian experience relies on this particular view of things to make sense of what’s going on and what has happened to get here.

I felt that if I could convince myself that these were real faith experiences and that God was truly in control, mapping it all out, that I’d be able to resist the urge to give it all up. It stopped me from beginning to call myself an atheist for a while, but it never managed to pull me back in to mindset I had held.

Theological Acrobatics

But here’s the thing… Prayer falls in the middle of some other key theological doctrines. We have the two book ends of free will and pre-destination. Now, I’m no theologian, but my (truly superficial) understanding of these things is that free will suggests things are open ended and an individual may decide his course – and, by implication, the course of others – by choosing whether or not to follow the spiritual influences he encounters. On the other hand, pre-destination suggests that God has the entirety of history and the future mapped out from start to finish, knowing what people will do, when and the consequences of all these things.

And I have never been able to reconcile where prayer sits in this dichotomy. If prayer is effective, pre-destination does not make sense because how can our words make any difference to something entirely mapped out. In this light, for us to even utter the words was a pre-determined action. So the prayer itself is meaningless. God knows everything; He knows the sequence of things and where they will lead on to next.

If, however, free will applies and we get to make decisions on the fly based on current circumstances, God cannot be omniscient. Or perhaps I misunderstand what that means. The argument would be that even if God knows what’s going to happen – what we’re going to ask for, how we want things to pan out – He doesn’t necessarily make it happen (I think). That’s murky. And surely my free will impacts others. My choices can change the direction of people besides myself? Again, if God doesn’t control this, how can He do anything with our prayers?

More to it than theology?

I wonder if there’s more to prayer than the Christian experience. All religions pray. Most forms of spiritualism throughout the world involve something that can be likened to prayer or meditation. I’ve read some things over the years which suggest that this kind of time-out mechanism is extremely beneficial to us. Perhaps that’s why Christians hold onto prayer so much. The personal benefits they get from actually praying mean more than the outcome of those prayers? That because of how it makes them feel, they look for confirmations and reasons to keep doing it, so they justify it that their prayers are always answered one way or another?

Again, I’ve no experience of this neurological realm either, but there must be something in it.

I look back on my times of praying with a little bit of disdain these days. Even though I struggled with it the whole way through my Christian life, it really makes so little sense now. I have come to firmly believe that the only thing affected by any form of prayer is the mental (or physical) state of the pray-er and that pleading for anything to any god is an exercise in utter futility.

Setting the Scene

By way of introduction, I want to lay out where I’ve been and where I am in terms of faith.

It’s almost Christmas in December 2014, and we’re coming up to 3 years since I began the journey of leaving my Christian faith. I’ll be 36 in a couple of weeks and that faith has been at the very core of “me” since I was, I reckon, about 9 years old. I was raised to be a Christian and encouraged to attend almost everything I could (in terms of church meetings) as I was growing up.

I was never a Christian who could recount the exact day and hour when I knelt and prayed to be saved. As I listened to testimony after testimony of those who could, I always felt a mixture of jealousy and disappointment. I wanted my special moment, but I just had to vaguely settle on “around the age of 9”. I have a sneaky suspicion I would have made a commitment before that time but I now hold that it was that age before I truly understood what it meant.

I lived my faith to the full. I prayed. I read. I learned. I defended. I argued. It maybe didn’t influence my behaviour very much during my early teens and there are plenty of things from that time that I look back on with shame. But as I matured, so did my faith.

I was never employed by a church or church-related organisation, but I’ve been a leader and been in charge of various groups, as a volunteer, since I was 16. Most of my life – outside of work – has had some sort of connection with church since that time. I’ll go into more detail about these subjects in later posts.

But things are very different for me these days. Whilst there has not been one, single occurrence which “flipped the switch” of faith for me, I believe I can pinpoint two particular experiences which started the ball rolling.

The Giant’s Causeway

I live in Northern Ireland. There’ll be much more about that later, too, but a few years ago we had a massive controversy about the narration system provided for attendees to the new Giant’s Causeway Visitor’s Centre. It featured a single line which hinted that Creationism was viewed by some as a viable explanation of how we had come to be. The scientific community and a large number of the general population were apoplectic over this and demanded it be removed to prevent any suggestion of Creationism being either scientific or viable.

For most of my Christian life, I was an ardent Creationist. I fully believed it had a solid scientific basis and I consumed the works of AiG and The Creation Institute in bulk to ensure I knew the evidence and could put it across well. I argued about this subject for years in discussions and on internet forums, trying to do so in with as much credibility as I could muster.

Whilst I think the episode with the Giant’s Causeway was frankly ridiculous and a little embarrassing, it did kick-start some serious thinking for me. I began to read more – and differently – around the Creation vs. Evolution subject and I began to slowly shift my views. I still clung on to many of my other Christian beliefs, and I spent a lot of time praying that I would continue to learn what I needed to so I could maintain my Creationist viewpoint. Or, at the very least, I could reconcile Christianity with some variation of evolution. But my “faith” in that explanation of our history as a world and as a people was beginning to wane.

The Bible in a Year

Almost 3 years ago, I realised that even though I had been a Christian for over 20 years, I had never actually read all of the Bible. I carried a bit of remorse about that, but I set out to rectify it as a New Year’s resolution, and one I was determined to stick to more than any ever before. From the perspective of being a Christian, it was one of the worst things I ever set out to do.

I followed a reading plan which meant I wasn’t just reading from start to finish – I was reading different parts every day. I was a firm believer in the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture and felt sure that this would grow my faith and bring me closer to understanding the person of God and allowing Him a bigger role in my life.

But instead of that, I began to come across things, for myself, that I had always put down to “haters gonna hate”. Contradictions. Repetitions. Inconsistencies. Scandalous passages presenting a God of apparent madness. Instructions which made no sense – then nor now. I occasionally look back on the notes I took and the passages I highlighted, and it’s interesting how few of them are taught from our pulpits, books or theology courses.

I had heard the arguments for how these things where in the Bible, but in my ignorance, I had taken them as “attacks of Satan” and always explained them away as people not understanding the nuances and holistic narrative of the Bible and how it was one big, joined up, sensible story rather than a series of individual written constructs. I began to think “Wait… what if there is more to these accusations than I have ever considered?”

I made it to mid-April following the reading plan before I made a conscious decision to stop for fear of where continuing would lead me.

A Sobering Thought

A conclusion I settled on from these particular episodes was that the vast, vast majority of the general population “know” things because they have been told what to think, not because they have any direct experience of it. We are all products of what we see and hear and we all have a tendency to surround ourselves with input and resources which tell us what we want.

Scientifically, there are barely any of us involved in experimentation of study to give us a truly accurate understanding of biological evolution and its components and predictions. So we rely on the words of others. For many, that will be the likes of news reports and articles or TV documentaries. In Christian circles, it’ll be what advocates of Creationism tell us, including all the straw men that have been the very core of the Creationist argument since it became mainstream. But we need to know both sides of the argument, review the evidence and try to make an informed decision about what is truth.

In theological terms, our knowledge comes from what is preached from our pulpits, and rarely from the depths of our own studies. I recall how I spent so much time reading around the Bible rather than actually reading it. I read books which interpreted Scripture for me and I attended services and listened to preachers who would confirm my beliefs and challenge me in ways I found acceptable.

I decided that I needed to make my own decisions about what I believed, and that meant becoming much more critical and cynical and thinking much more deeply about the things I professed; to understand how much basis they actually had and whether I could truly consider them factual and reliable. It meant being open to consume evidence from different sources. It meant really getting to the crux of things I had only scratched the surface of in the past (for fear of what I might find if I went any further).

And where has this brought me? In simple terms, I am no longer a Christian. I no longer believe that the Protestant, Christian Bible I once thought so much of has a basis in factual history. I do not believe that all of the stories recounted in it are true and the personalities presented in it are the personalities our theology has made them to be. I do not believe the God of Christianity is a character I’d want to be associated with and the “system”, described in the Bible, of this world and an after-world of either eternal pleasure or eternal torment makes no sense whatsoever.

I am an apostate. I am a de-convert. I am an ex-Christian. Call me what you will, but I am not who I used to be.