Personal Growth


Hook

The overwhelming evidence against God led me to become an atheist on January 11.

Exposition

My quest for the historical Jesus led to a more comprehensive intellectual investigation of the empirical and philosophical arguments for and against God and the Bible. I consumed books, articles, lectures, and debates.

Rising Action

The more I looked at the Bible, the more flawed it seemed. And much of it was nonsense, including a man who lived in the belly of a whale, a prophet who pointlessly cursed a fig tree, and a man who squeezed every species on the planet into a big boat. Supposedly, 500,000 Israelites died in a single battle, more than those who died in any single battle of WWII or in the entire U.S. Civil War.

Worse, the Bible revealed an ugly, evil God not worthy of worship even if he did exist. This God overturned free will, caused disaster, lied to his people and instructed them to lie, dismembered 42 children for calling Elisha bald, and murdered or ordered the murder of millions of innocent people (in the conquest of Canaan, the death of Egyptian firstborns, the Amalakite genocide, the 50,000 Beshemish people killed for looking into the ark of the covenant, and the great flood).

Philosophy was no kinder, for example in the omnipotence paradox, the Euthyphro dilemma, and other logical contradictions of the Christian God.

And of course the empirical evidence in the world points to a naturalistic worldview. If God loves and heals, why has he never regenerated an amputee’s limb? And why would God create squids with useless complex eyes underneath their working simple eyes, mole rats with useless eyes buried under a layer of skin, or humans with an appendix? These structures agree with evolution, not with an intelligent designer. And why is there no evidence of a worldwide flood?

Climax

Finally, I listened to several hours of an atheist radio show featuring two experienced, expert atheists who destroyed theist arguments persuasively and took calls from ignorant, angry believers. Atheist arguments were obvious and straightforward. Christian arguments were convoluted, backward, irrational, and always devolved into “you just have to have faith” when pressed. That was enough. I was convinced God could not exist.

It broke my heart. I was coming from a lifetime high of falling in love with the Jesus I thought I knew. My first day as an atheist was miserable. The next day, I wrote to the atheist radio show host:

I do not think I am strong enough to be an atheist. Or brave enough. I have a broken leg, and my life is much better with a crutch. I think I’m going to choose to hang on to my belief in a personal divine (though certainly not one asserted by any religion I’ve ever heard of) through my own anecdotal evidence of its existence. I’m going to seek genuine experience with God, to commune with God, and to reinforce my faith. I am going to avoid solid atheist arguments, because they are too compelling… I do not WANT to live in [an] empty, cold, ultimately purposeless universe in which I am worthless and inherently alone.

But I can’t come to know the truth and then ignore it. Two days later I told my dad and broke his heart.

I wanted desperately to recover the faith that had brought me so much joy and purpose. I asked close friends for help. I spent time with Christian apologist materials, which encouraged me that there might, after all, be a God. As it turned out, there are many problems inherant to atheism (the existence of morality, good, free will, and beauty), phenomena science cannot explain (consciousness, certain instances of irreducible complexity, much macro-evolution, finite history, miracles), and good counter-arguments to many of the atheist arguments that had destroyed my faith. But ultimately, the way of Jesus was the most beautiful thing I could think of, and worth living.

I have recovered my faith in a personal God expressed in Jesus, albeit with no other commitments yet (to the church, to theology, to religion, to doctrine, or to the Bible).

Denouement

I went looking for a fresh faith and God took me further than I wanted. Now I have a completely new faith, with few doctrines or traditions or religious hangups. I’m now free to seek God’s truth without intereferance from “2000 years of theological engineering and religious propaganda”.

But now I’m walking towards God with a limp. I’m scared about my gullibility and God’s mystery. I have questions he won’t answer. I want him to show himself unequivocally, but he hasn’t. I’m more motivated than ever to pray regularly and commune with his Spirit, because now I know I can’t do it in my own strength. I can be led astray. I’m not smart enough to figure it out. I am more dependent on God than ever.

I’ve been humbled. I was “doing discipleship” in my own strength, because I thought I was smart enough and disciplined enough. I would depend on God in my incompetancies, but not in my competancies. In this way, strengths were actually weaknesses. And, having surrendered my prideful and independent ways to him, I can see how my weakness is God’s strength.

I’ve repented. I was deceived because I did not let the Spirit lead me into truth. Now I ask for God’s guidance in all quests for knowledge and wisdom.

I feel like I’ve been born again, again.

Exit Music (for a short story) [link fixed]
words and music by Luke Muehlhauser
recorded on a $10 Skype headset, edited with freeware – how’s that for lo-fi?

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I’ve been on a journey to rediscover the true Jesus. I wanted a fresh encounter with Jesus unencumbered by 2000 years of theological engineering and religious propaganda.

Resources for my journey included1: two 12-hour lecture series by agnostic Bart Ehrman: From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity and Historical Jesus; the four canonical gospels, which I read while doing my best to filter out all my indoctrination and pay attention to the actual words and deeds of Jesus; The Challenge of Jesus by Anglican scholar N.T. Wright; and The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide by Protestant theologians Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz.

My journey enflamed the mystery of Jesus and Christianity, which must always be the result of eschewing indoctrination for an authentic investigation that respects multiple viewpoints. Now, let me share a few highlights of my frustrating journey.

Jesus vs. Paul

Jesus preached repentance and preparation for the coming Kingdom of God. But Paul (and subsequent Christianity) preached something very different: the death and resurrection of Jesus as the salvation of mankind. Jesus was entirely Jewish: he quoted Jewish Scriptures, observed Jewish law and custom, trained and taught as a Jewish rabbi, and said that “…until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter… will disappear from the Law.” But Paul preached that Gentiles should, in fact, not follow many Jewish laws. And Christianity has historically placed as much or more emphasis on the teachings of Paul than on the teachings of Jesus. My dad put it this way: We’ve been reading Jesus through the tone and structures of Paul. Perhaps we should be reading Paul through the words and deeds of Jesus instead.

Problematic gospels

The gospels are not necessarily problematic for people using them to support views about God or the best way to live; and indeed, most Christians are principally concerned with using the gospels to inform their theology and ethics, not to build viable arguments about the historical Jesus. But the gospels are immediately problematic for someone seeking to discover who Jesus actually was and what Jesus actually did.

Of course, the gospels were not written as historical records, but as proclamations about Jesus. And they were written by ancient monotheists, who were often more concerned with symbolism, tradition, and meaning than with rational, historical accuracy as we are today. So it is not surprising that the gospels are often contradictory or spurious.

Make a list of the events of each gospel, compare them, and you will find many general similarities. You will also find agreement between them and other independent sources, for example the writings of Paul. But you will also find many differences.

Many of these differences can be reconciled by recognizing that no gospel is a complete record of Jesus’ life. For example, Mark wrote2 that Jesus, Pilot, the Jewish leaders, and the crowd were in one place during Jesus’ very short trial, during which Jesus spoke only a few words. In John’s account, the Jewish leaders refused to enter Pilot’s headquarters because they didn’t want to be defiled just before Passover. So, Pilot walked in and out of his headquarters throughout the trial to speak with the Jewish leaders and then Jesus, who gave two long speeches. Christians reconcile these accounts by saying that Mark’s gospel is merely incomplete, and doesn’t bother to record Pilot’s many trips back and forth or Jesus’ long speeches. This may not be correct, but it is one way to argue that both accounts can be true even though they seem very different.

Another way to reconcile differences between gospel accounts is to claim that an event actually happened twice. Mark wrote that Jesus threw money changers out of the temple in the last week of his life, and John wrote that Jesus did this at the beginning of his ministry. To reconcile these different accounts, one may claim that Jesus threw money changers out of the temple at least twice, and that Mark recorded one such instance, and John recorded an earlier instance.

But many gospel differences are impossible to reconcile. For example, Mark wrote that Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover, and John wrote that Jesus was crucified the day before. We cannot say that Jesus was crucified twice. Scholars speculate that John placed Jesus’ crucifixion on the day before Passover because that fits with his image of Jesus as the Lamb of God. John is the only gospel author to repeatedly call Jesus the Lamb of God, and he reinforced this image by placing Jesus’ death on the day before Passover: the “day of preparation” during which Jewish priests slaughtered lambs for the upcoming Passover meal. In this way, John showed that Jewish leaders slaughtered Jesus on the same day they slaughtered lambs for Passover, and for the same symbolic purpose (atonement).

This manipulation of truth for symbolic, ritual, or numerological meaning was common among monotheistic authors. One example is Matthew’s genealogy. After opening his book with several “begats”, Matthew remarked that there were 14 generations between each of four critical events in Jewish history (Abraham, David, Babylonian exile, and Jesus). This fits with the systematic, numerical, and Hebraic emphasis throughout this gospel. But the author has manipulated the truth to support his bias. First, Matthew named only 13 generations from the Babylonian exile to Jesus. Second, though he named 14 generations from Abraham to David, there were actually 17 (see the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles). That Jewish authors often manipulated truth to achieve a religious or symbolic effect makes them less insidious but their writings no less historically suspect.

Also, many gospel accounts do not agree with other historical sources. For example, Luke wrote that Joseph traveled to the hometown (Bethlehem) of his ancestor from 1000 years ago (King David) for a census during the reign of King Herod, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. But other historical sources claim that Quirinius was not governor until 10 years after Herod’s death. (Nevermind the absurdity of Emperor Augustus demanding a census of the whole Roman Empire requiring mass migrations of all people to the hometown of their 1000-year ancestors, an epic and unprecedented event that is not recorded in any other historical source.)

As we can see, a close look at the gospels reveals several irreconcilable differences between accounts, an authorial tradition of writing for religious effect at the cost of historical accuracy, and many historically implausible events. The examples given above are just a few of many concrete instances of these three types of problems with the gospels. All this makes an investigation of the historical Jesus through even the canonical gospels – our best sources on the life of Jesus – very difficult and insecure.

The Historical Jesus

Historical investigations use three basic criteria to determine the probability of recorded events. First, independent attestation. If an event is recorded in multiple independent sources, it is more likely to have occurred. For example, every source (Christian, Jewish, pagan) records that Jesus was crucified. Second, dissimilarity. If a recorded event does not support the bias of the author, it is more likely to have occurred (because the author wouldn’t invent stories that don’t support his bias). For example, Jesus being from Nazareth does not support the bias of any Christian or Jewish authors, because prophecies place the Messiah in Bethlehem, and Nazareth was small and insignificant (hardly a birthplace for the Messiah). Third, contextual credibility. If a recorded event does not agree with other historical sources, it is less likely to have occurred. Examples include the gospel discrepancies and the notes on Quirinius, Herod, and the Augustus census above.

Applying these three criteria, and understanding that earliest sources are most valuable – less likely to have suffered telephone game effects (or deliberate corruption) during oral tradition before they were finally written – we might find that the following summary is the most likely story of the historical Jesus3.

Jesus was raised a Jew in Nazareth by Joseph, a low-class laborer, and Mary. He had siblings, spoke Aramaic, and read Hebrew scriptures. He began adult ministry with his baptism by John the Baptist. He took 12 disciples, preached radical ethics, and called for repentence in preparation for a coming kingdom of God. He publicly associated with women, sinners and outcasts. In rural Galilee, he became known as a teacher, healer, miracle-worker, and exorciser. He travelled to Jerusalem, ate a meal with his disciples, was betrayed to Jewish leaders by Judas Iscariot, was tried before Pontious Pilot, and was crucified. Those who believed he was resurrected spread the story of Jesus rapidly about the Mediterranean.

This looks fine until you notice the events that have been specifically excluded because of their failure to pass historical criteria: virgin birth, Bethlehem, a shining star, wise men, teen teaching at the temple, Jesus’ divinity, dozens of miracles, parables, the resurrection, etc.

Miracles like virgin birth and walking on water present a particular problem for historians. Historians seek most probable events. Because miracles are, by definition, highly improbable, a miracle can never, for a historian, be the most probable truth about a particular event4. This can be seen as a special case of historical criterion #3: Jesus walking on water does not conform at all to the known history of Jesus’ context (people could not walk on water). In this way, historical investigation is ipso facto incapable of determining the veracity of miracles, just as scientific means are ipso facto incapable of investigating the supernatural. Unfortunately, this has not stopped some historians from pretending they have something to say about miracles, or some scientists from pretending they have something to say about the supernatural.

Conclusion

What is my response? Naturally, we need not throw out all Scripture because it contains errors. We don’t do this with anything else, anyway (if we did, we’d have no viable school textbooks at all). But all this (along with innumerable errors throughout the whole Bible) seems to indicate that the Bible is not the direct word of omniscient God, but of course the work of biased, fallible humans. There is much wisdom and truth in the Bible, but it is dangerous to assume the Bible is historically accurate, and it is dangerous to exegete doctrine from a single passage, especially if that passage does not agree with other accounts. And so, there is much about Jesus’ life and teaching that is in doubt.

Still, a coherant image of Jesus emerges from Scripture. He becons us to join in the current and coming Kingdom of God through sacrificial love for all, a divorce from materialism, faith in God, and continual servanthood. And he points us to communion with God, through which we will come to know God and experience him in obedience.

1 See this page for a nice list of other good sources, and a (very biased) summary of the historical Jesus and early Christianity. Bart Ehrman’s lectures were very informative but employed inconsistent logic. My reading of the gospels only reinforced the many discrepancies among them. The Challenge of Jesus had some value, but it explored the meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds in their original context given that the gospels are consistent and accurate, which of course they are not. My favorite source was The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, a convenient summary of all major historical research and opinions on the historical Jesus.
2 Actually, the canonical gospels are anonymous, but I say that “Mark wrote that…” instead of “the gospel traditionally attributed to Mark recorded that…” for brevity’s sake.
3 A full investigation of the historicity of every recorded event about Jesus fills many scholarly volumes, and is the subject of large research teams and vast databases.
4 This is true despite the fact that millions of people experience and witness miracles every year. That makes it sound like miracles are common, but they are incredibly uncommon compared to events that agree with natural processes. For every disease suddenly healed, there are a million more diseases that go through their natural progression. This is why we can say that the chance of any particular miracle happening is infintessimally small, and therefore historians cannot name any miracle as a “most probable” true event in history.

I did a terrifying, devastating, and perhaps foolish thing today.

I permanently deleted my entire music collection.

You probably don’t understand what this means. Let me explain.

Remember my post about how my lust for music was taking over my life? I was constantly consuming music, illegally and to the loss of about 50 hours a week, so I decided to stop consuming music altogether.

That lasted two days.

Then I started consuming music faster than ever before. I recently downloaded, cataloged, and previewed more than 60 albums in a single day. I love music so much, and have such easy access to it that I couldn’t stop.

My addiction is unhealthy and wasteful, and is keeping me from being the man God is calling me to be. And like a drug, it makes me feel very good but is keeping me from being truly, deeply filled with joy.

So I deleted it all. Over 5,000 albums, most obscure and difficult to find. Truly, my life’s work. The product of thousands of hours of passionate hunting, reading, discussing, trading, and writing. Mostly stolen albums, hundreds of free and legitimate albums, and hundreds of albums I paid for properly. All gone. Forever.

I knew I couldn’t take the time to sort out the ones that were free or rightly purchased; that would still leave me with a very large collection and a wide open door for the temptation to build again on that collection. No, in order to free myself, I had to totally devastate myself.

I knew this was an area of my life I had not surrendered to God. Now I seek the simple path of daily brokenness before God.

Did I make the right choice? I don’t know. I begged God to tell me what to do, but I couldn’t hear him. So I did the thing that seemed most pure, most beautiful. My decision may have been stupid, but I hope God considers that I did it with good intentions.

How do I feel? Awful. I weep now as I type this, because I just threw away thousands of hours of intense pleasure. Nothing stirs my emotions like good music, and I had a limitless supply of it just a few minutes ago. Now it is all gone, and it seems a cold world that awaits me without it. Imagine the thing you love the most, the thing that keeps you going through the week, the thing that comforts you when you hurt, the thing that excites you to no end. Then imagine it suddenly and completely gone.

I don’t recall ever asking my readers for prayer before, but I ask it now. Please pray that I will remain faithful and not steal music ever again, that I will keep music surrendered to God, that I will fill the gaping hole left behind with the presence of God, and that I will continue to surrender other parts of my being to Christ’s lordship.

Breathe, Luke. Just breathe. It’s gonna be okay.

I have revisited all my posts from this year to remember some of what God taught me (that is my primary purpose for writing this blog, after all). It was a wonderful year, not because my circumstances or wealth or abilities or relationships improved, but because God has been transforming my heart and mind, and because I am falling deeper in love with him. Everything else seems to fade away (including, for example, my recent $900 auto repair bill). Here are some of the highlights of what God taught me this year:

1. Loving my enemies includes, like, not killing them.
2. I am blessed beyond belief. Life is good.
3. I will never be safe or know the future, and that is a grand adventure.
4. There are no Christian politics.
5. There’s no reason for me to insist that nonbelievers follow God’s law. That’s not love; it’s the definition of legalism.
6. Love is more beautiful and powerful than anything.

I’m probably forgetting some major revelations, but: Thank you, God!

I also have some personal requests of God for the coming year:

1. God, fill my heart with genuine compassion for other people.
2. God, destroy the hold that lust has over my heart and mind.
3. God, destroy the grip that music consumption has over my life.
4. God, give me discipline to join your Spirit in transforming me and doing your work.
5. God, train me to hear your voice.
6. God, give me peace about finances, friendships, mystery, and romance.

Because I am a man and must be strong and competent at all times, because I have had such an idyllic upbringing of love and opportunity, and because I have never suffered, I always feel that I do not have permission to be broken. I’ve never been abused or experienced relentless pain, so how dare I be broken? I’ve been given so much opportunity and love, I should always be the strong one for others to lean on! Right?

God’s not letting me get away with that anymore. I’ve been moving forward so quickly with him – partly because I’m excited and partly because I don’t want to deal with the pain inside me – that I haven’t addressed my great brokenness, and I haven’t let God address it either. So, I’m going to take some time to:

1. Be honest about my brokenness and tell God how upset I am about it.
2. Let God reveal more pain I didn’t know I had buried (ouch!).
3. Let God reveal the wicked sources for all that pain.
4. Ask God to heal my pain and transform my heart and mind.
5. Train myself, moment by moment, to think, feel, and live in a new way.

This is especially new territory for me, so if anyone has any advice or resources for this kind of process, I’m all ears.

I suspect I’ll always feel guilt for the hypocrisy of disagreement between what I claim to believe and what I choose to do. This guilt motivates me to change my behavior so that it better reflects my beliefs. Lately, I’ve been convicted by my lack of sacrificial love. I’m part of a community of believers who feel called to love and serve the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, but I don’t do very much loving or serving there. So, I’ve been planning to step out into what is for me unfamiliar territory and start ministering to that neighborhood. Maybe I’d pray and walk the streets. Maybe I’d read the Bible aloud in Hard Times. Maybe I’d hand out winter clothes to homeless people. Whatever.

But I was concerned that my heart wasn’t really in it. I would be acting out of guilt and legalistic expectations rather than out of a compassionate heart. I needed to get passion first. Then again, simple obedience and service can transform our hearts very effectively! I wasn’t sure what to do, so I asked a friend who serves in that neighborhood regularly what specific things I could do to serve those people. Without knowing my internal conflict, he replied with no recommendations for ministry, only that I transform my heart with constant prayer and Bible reading.

I took this as confirmation from God that I should take some time to renovate my heart through practicing his presence and studying his truth. Praise God! I hope he also gives me clear direction to step out and serve, sometime.

No, I didn’t do pot again. 🙂

Yesterday, I posted to this blog the long and explicit story of my first encounter with marijuana a few weeks ago. I had written the essay for a creative writing class, and posted it unedited to my blog. So, wherever it succeeded in creative expression, it mostly failed in moral application. I have deleted that post.

I did learn some things from smoking pot. I became even more convinced that I hate losing control of myself. I know the experience of being high. I’m learning more about true drug culture. I grew in sympathy for those living with addictions to these drugs that totally hijack one’s mind and body. (And, to those who are thinking of trying pot for the first time: Note that I did it with a trusted friend, in absence of peer pressure, with much previous thought and research, and no intention to ever do it again. And even still, I’m not sure it’s worth it: remember that different people react to it differently.)

But ironically, I learned more from my poor decision to post that story to my blog than from my more sensational decision to smoke pot. I’ve gained insight into my conceited, attention-seeking, shock-happy blabbermouth. I’ve realized my insensitivity to my audience (which on the Internet may include anyone, including children). I’ve opened internal and external dialogs about the limits of useful self-disclosure. And I’ve been humbled by yet another mistake. (One problem with an easily-Googleable online identity like lukeprog is that all my past embarrassments are recorded for all to see, from shrugging off Jewish laws to a passing, foolish affinity for mediocre pop music.)

To those offended by my “Marijuana” post, I apologize. Know that I always invite confrontation.

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