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Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity

John W. Loftus - (2008)


This book may be unlike any other book you've ever read. It is specifically written to devout Christians by a former Christian minister and apologist for their faith who is now an atheist. It's also written for Christians who are questioning their faith, as well as for skeptics who want to learn how to effectively argue against Christianity. Sadly to say, those two latter groups of people will be more likely to read it and gain the most benefit from it. There are many books that "preach to the hair" in the marketplace, on both sides of this great debate. Mine is not intended to be one of them. Because of this, some skeptics may not appreciate why I argue the way I do, but someone has to bridge the gap between us by speaking to Christians in ways they will understand. (11)

Martin Luther called reason "the Devil's whore," and as such, reason "can do nothing but slander and harm all that God says and does." Luther argued against the magisterial use of reason, in which reason judges the gospel, and approved of the ministerial use of reason, in which reason submits and serves the gospel. William Lane Craig agrees with this viewpoint and argues, "reason is a tool to help us better understand our faith. Should faith and reason conflict, it is reason that must submit to faith, not vice versa." (47)

I've investigated my faith from the inside as an insider with the presumption that it was true. Even from an insider's perspective, I couldn't continue to believe. Now from the outside, it makes no sense at all. Christians are on the inside. I am now on the outside. Christians see things from the inside. I see things from the outside. From the inside, it seems true. From the outside, it seems untrue.
There are many religious faiths from which to choose. How does one actually choose to be on the "inside" of any of them if from the "outside" none of them have any plausibility? Unless one is on the inside as an adherent of a particular religious faith, she cannot see. But from the outside, the adherents of a different faith seem blind. This reminds me of what Mark Twain said: "The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also." Believers are truly atheists with regard to all other religions but their own. Atheists just reject one more religion.
This whole inside/outside perspective is quite a dilemma and prompts me to propose and argue on behalf of the outsider test for religious faith, the result of which makes the presumption of skepticism the preferred stance when approaching any religious faith, especially one's own. The outsider test is simply a challenge to test one's own religious faith with the presumption of skepticism, as an outsider. Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to your faith. An outsider would begin her journey as a disinterested investigator who didn't think the religious faith in question is true since there are so many different religious faiths in the world. An outsider would be someone who was only interested in which, if any, religious faith is correct and would have no intellectual affiliation with any of them at all. She would have to assume that her culturally inherited religious faith is probably false. To be an outsider would mean she would have nothing at stake in the outcome of her investigations, and hence no fear of hell (however conceived) while investigating them, beginning with her own. (66-7)

Surely someone will initially object that this is quite draconian in scope. Why take such an extreme stance? It's because that's how religious people approach all of the other religious faiths but their own. People approach other faiths this way all of the time, so why not do that with one's own religious faith? Why is there this discrepancy in how they evaluate religious faiths? For someone to object that what I'm asking is unfair, she has the burden of proof to show why her inconsistent approach to religious faith is justified in the first place. By contrast, I can offer good reasons why she should adopt such a skeptical presumption. Doing so is based upon some hard, cold sociological facts.
The basis for the outsider test challenge can be found in a statement by John Hick: "[I]t is evident that in some ninety-nine percent of the cases the religion which an individual professes and to which he or she adheres depends upon the accidents of birth. Someone born to Buddhist parents in Thailand is very likely to be a Buddhist, someone born to Muslim parents in Saudi Arabia to be a Muslim, someone born to Christian parents in Mexico to be a Christian, and so on."
Richard Dawkins said the same thing in a much harsher tone: "Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happens to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has lest evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one .... The religion we adopt is a matter of an accident of geography." (67-8)

If after having investigated your religious faith with the presumption of skepticism it passes intellectual muster, then you can have your religious faith. It's that simple. If not, abandon it. Any loving God who requires us to believe correctly, when we have this extremely strong tendency to accept what we were born into, especially if he'll punish us if we end up being wrong, should surely make the correct religious faith pass the outsider test. (71)

Stating the odds as intelligent design (ID) theorists do is highly misleading, since they presume that life must have turned out exactly as it has. All we are left with is rarity. But "rarity by itself shouldn't necessarily be evidence of anything. When one is dealt a bridge hand of thirteen cards, the probability of being dealt that particular hand is less than one in 600 billion. Still, it would be absurd for someone to be dealt a hand, examine it carefully, calculate that the probability of getting it is less than one in 600 billion, and then conclude that he must not have been dealt that very hand because it is so very improbable." (92)

In the Bible we find a strange world. Karl Barth wrote an essay titled "The Strange World Within the Bible." To the question of what lies within the world of the Bible, Barth gives this answer: "Within the Bible, there is a strange, new world, the world of God." And it is indeed strange to us today—very strange.
We find a world where a snake and a donkey talked, where giants lived in the land, where people could live to be nine-hundred-plus years old, where a woman was turned into a pillar of salt, where a pillar of fire could lead people by night, where the sun stopped moving across the sky or could even back up, where an axhead could float on water, where a star could point down to a specific home, where people could instantly speak in unlearned foreign languages, and where someone's shadow or handkerchief could heal people. It is a world where a flood could cover the whole earth, and where a man could walk on water, calm a stormy sea, change water into wine, or be swallowed by a "great fish" and live to tell about it. It is a world populated by demons that could wreak havoc on earth and also make people very sick. It is a world of idol worship, where human and animal sacrifices pleased God. In this world we find visions, inspired dreams, prophetic utterances, miracle workers, magicians, diviners, and sorcerers. It is a world where God lived in the sky (heaven) and people who died went to live in the dark recesses of the earth (Sheol). (124)

It's very interesting to me that Christians will believe in the miracles recorded in the Bible, simply because they are recorded in the Bible, but if I claimed I saw one of these miracles yesterday, they would not believe me. I dare say that if an evangelical Christian with her present modern mind-set would step back into the ancient world and hear someone tell a tale that a woman turned into a pillar of salt, she wouldn't believe it unless she saw evidence. If someone told her a snake or a donkey talked, she would scoff. But simply because these things are told in the Bible, she believes they happened. What I want to know is why the Christian maintains a double standard. Why does she believe the world of the Bible but reject the world of Homer? Why does she believe the biblical claims of miracles but would reject similar claims of a miracle today? Why does she believe the biblical stories but would reject those stories if she lived in that era?
Sam Harris makes this point very vivid in these words: ''Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever." (125)

When it comes to child sacrifice, it was actually commanded by God. In Exodus 22:29-30 we read: "You shall not delay to offer from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The first-born of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do likewise with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be withits dam; on the eighth day you shall give it to me." Later on God admitted he did this in Ezekiel 20:25-26 where he purportedly said: "Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life; and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know that I am the LORD." (136)

When could the majority of the Pentateuch have been written? In 2 Kings 22:8-13, there is an interesting story. Israel had long been divided into two kingdoms. Josiah had just come to be king of Judah. He wanted to repair the temple and told the priest to go through all the stuff and see how much money they had. While the high priest was looking, he found the "Book of the Law" and gave it to a secretary who read it to Josiah. When Josiah heard it, he tore his clothes because he realized that they had not been obeying God.
Scholars think that instead of "finding" the Law (another way of saying the first five books of the Bible) here, this is when it was actually compiled and/or much of it written. Most of the Hebrew Bible was actually written at a time in the divided kingdom of Israel when Josiah wanted to control the people he was ruling. It was written to keep a crumbling kingdom together as a system of control, and it was claimed that Moses wrote it. It's also suggested that since Jeremiah's prophetic ministry took place during Josiah's reign (seventh century BCE), be may have been the pseudonymous author of a large part of Deuteronomy. Richard Elliot Friedman tells us the book of Jeremiah "seems to be written, at several points, in the same language and outlook as Deuteronomy. Parts of Jeremiah are so similar to Deuteronomy that it is hard to believe that they were not written by the same person." That's what scholarship leads us to think.
This may explain why the Bible tells us the Passover meal was not celebrated for hundreds of years before King Josiah's time. In 2 Kings 23:21-23, Josiah comnanded the people to celebrate the Passover. And there we read, "Not since the days of the judges who led Israel, nor throughout the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah, had any such Passover been observed. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, this Passover was celebrated to the Lord in Jerusalem." It's likely that the Passover meal was first celebrated during his reign. (168-9)

When arguing that he knows Christianity is true based on the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit, Craig stands in the steps of some great Christian thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, and even Barth and Bultmann. According to Wolfart Pannenberg, "the basic presupposition underlying German Protestant theology as expressed by Barth and Bultmann is that the basis of theology is the self-authenticating Word of God which demands obedience." Unlike some of these theologians, though, the basis for Craig's faith is in the inner witness of the Holy Spirit alone, who may use the Bible, evidence, or nothing at all to create faith in the believer.
Does Craig mean to say that he cannot be wrong? Yes! He knows Christianity is true. With this understanding, he has insulated himself from any and all objections to the contrary. He knows he's right because he knows he's right, and that's the end of the matter. Since he knows he's right, Christianity is true.
Mark Smith (of set up the following scenario for Craig: "Dr. Craig, for the sake of argument let's pretend that a time machine gets built. You and I hop in it, and travel back to the day before Easter, 33 AD. We park it outside the tomb of Jesus. We wait. Easter morning rolls around, and nothing happens. We continue to wait. After several weeks of waiting, still nothing happens. There is no resurrection—Jesus is quietly rotting away in the tomb."
Smith asked Craig, given this scenario, if he would then give up Christianity, having seen with his own two eyes that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Smith wrote: "His answer was shocking, and quite unexpected. He told me, face to face, that he would STILL believe in Jesus, he would STILL believe in the resurrection, and he would STILL remain a Christian. When asked, in light of his being a personal eyewitness to the fact that there WAS no resurrection, he replied that due to the witness of the 'holy spirit' within him, he would assume a trick of some sort had been played on him while watching Jesus' tomb. This self-induced blindness astounded me." If anyone doubts what Craig said in response, Mark challenges him or her to ask him the same question.
At my prompting, Dr. Zachary Moore did just that. He asked Craig this same question after an invited talk at the First Baptist Church of Colleyville, while Craig was visiting the Dallas-Forth Worth area to record a series of Reasonable Faith podcasts in August 2007. Craig clarified his response: "If the question is whether I would be a Christian if Jesus didn't arise from the dead, then the answer to that is obviously 'no.' But if the question is what would count as evidence, then it would always be open for me to say this isn't the right tomb [where Jesus was buried]." Moore then asked him if he could think of any evidence that would counter his faith. Craig answered by saying, "if I were presented with the real tomb of Jesus and his corpse was still there, then I wouldn't have an inner witness of the Holy Spirit." He said the inner witness of the Spirit "trumps all other evidence," so "for other evidence to overpower it, I would not have had it [in the first place]." He said, "it's really an awkward sort of question." (214)

First, the American Heart Journal did a scientific test of prayer on patients who had heart bypass surgery. They were separated into three groups. Group 1 received prayers and didn't know it. Group 2 received no prayers and didn't know it (the control group). Group 3 received prayers and did know it. Groups 1 and 3 were prayed for by different congregations throughout America. The results were very clear. There was no difference between the patients who were prayed for and those who were not prayed for. Moreover, the patients who knew they were being prayed for suffered significantly more complications than those who did not know they were being prayed for. (226)

So let me begin. I'll assume for the sake of argument that God exists. Then why didn't God just create a heavenly world with heavenly bodies in the first place? Theists typically believe that a heaven awaits faithful believers when they die, where there will be no "death, or mourning or crying or pain" (Rev. 21:4), where believers will have incorruptible bodies (l Cor. 15:30 ff.), in a perfect existence. So why didn't God just create such a perfect existence in the first place? If there's free will in heaven without sin, then God could've created such a world. To say God initially did create such a world but that there was an angelic rebellion in it merely places the problem of evil back in time. How is it possible to be in the direct presence of a being that has absolute goodness and unlimited power and still desire to rebel against him? Even if this is possible, why didn't God prevent such a rebellion? Pierre Bayle argued: "One might as well compare the Godhead with a father who had let the legs of his children be broken in order to display before an entire city the skill which he has is setting bones; One might as well compare the Godhead with a 'monarch who would allow strife and seditions to spring up throughout his kingdom in order to acquire the glory of having put an end to them." (236)

Evangelical Christian scholars admit that we do not have the very words of Jesus. (Instead they argue that we have the "voice" of Jesus through the gospel writers.) Jesus spoke in Aramaic, so his words would have been first translated into Greek. Since the verbal agreement among the Gospels is very close in the Greek when they relate the same story, these stories were already in Greek before they reached the gospel writers. So again, what exactly are the words we should use when saying the Lord's Prayer? (311-12)

Uta Ranke-Heinemann tells us, "If we wish to continue seeing Luke's accounts of angelic messages and so forth, as historical events, we'd have to take a large leap of faith: We'd have to assume that while on verifiable matters of historical fact Luke tells all sorts of fairy tales (just mentioned above) but on supernatural matters—which by definition can never be checked—he simply reports tbe facts. By his arbitrary treatment of history, Luke has shown himself to be an unhistorical reporter—a teller of fairy tales." (322)

According to David L. Edwards: "Paul's surviving letters do not refer to the virgin birth. Mark's gospel also does not mention this miracle. John's gospel is also silent about a miraculous conception, except that all Christians are 'born' not through sex but 'of God' (1:13) .... Herod's massacre of 'all the boys in Bethlehem ...' is not mentioned in the indignantly careful list of Herod's atrocities given by the Jewish historian, Josephus. But it is suspiciously like the story of Pharaoh's massacre of Hebrew boys in Exodus 1:22. In Luke's narrative the characters, sayings and experiences of John the Baptist's parents (1:5-25; 57-80) are suspiciously like those of Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis, and Mary's song (1:46-55) resembles the Song of Hannah (l Sam. 2:1-10)." (322-3)

Robert W. Funk summarizes the four stages of Christology in the New Testament: Stage one: Exaltation Christology. This is an evaluation of Jesus that "assigns him the role of a son of Adam at his death and resurrection .... In this view, Jesus became, or was elevated to, a son of God by virtue of his resurrection" (Rom. 1:3-4; Acts 2:36). Stage two: Adoptionistic Christology. "The first stage of Christology did not require the creation of a gospel because the words and deeds of Jesus were not essential to his function; the real role of Jesus was to return as the messiah in the very near future. When he did not return immediately as expected, his followers began to review what they remembered of him and decided that his life, after all, had exhibited some unusual traits. Now they started to fashion another version of his story in which he was designated son of God, not at his resurrection but at his baptism" (Mark 1:10-11). Stage three: "The next step came with the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and these gospels 'moved the messianic status of Jesus back to his birth.' If there was someone who had a noteworthy life, he must have had a noteworthy birth. If a hero is human, as in the case of John the Baptist, the miracle is that of a barren woman .... If the hero is considered superhuman, as in the case of Hercules and Alexander, the male parent is a god." Stage four: ''The gospel of John's prologue (1:1-18) makes Jesus pre-existent from the beginning." (334)

Third, did Jesus really suffer an infinite punishment for our sins? If Jesus was merely being punished for all of the wrongdoing of every person who ever lived on earth based on human standards of punishment and not infinite standards, we'd still have to ask whether he was punished enough. After all, if every person who ever lived deserved to be slapped in the face just one time, then the equivalent of sixty billion slaps would surely amount to more punishment than Jesus physically endured. But if it's true to say that each and every one of us deserved an infinite punishment for our sins, then how much less is it true to say Jesus suffered infinitely for each one of us? More to the point, if we were given a choice to suffer as Jesus did or else be cast in hell for eternity (which would be our infinite punishment), we would all choose to suffer as Jesus did. Jesus didn't suffer forever, nor did he stay dead.
But it is said that Jesus endured more than just physical pain. He also endured the pain of being separated from God. How can we make sense of this claim? If it's merely a metaphor for the mental pain of not sensing God's help when we need it, then we have all felt that pain throughout our lives. Otherwise, it must somehow mean Jesus ceased to be God while on the cross. However, Christians cannot believe that. Because if Jesus in fact ceased to be God, then since Christians believe a triune God exists, that means God also ceased to exist when Jesus ceased to be God. (346)

If the cross was needed to pay the punishment for my sins, then how can God really be a forgiving God? Forgiveness doesn't require punishment. To put it bluntly, if I can't forgive you for striking me on the chin until I return the blow back to you, or to someone else, then that's not forgiveness—that's retaliation, or sweet revenge! Revenge is never an ethical motive for action, even if we are led to take revenge on others sometimes. John Hick again: "A forgiveness that has to be bought by the bearing of a just punishment ... is not forgiveness, but merely an acknowledgment that the debt has been paid in full." (347)

In a sermon delivered by Tom Smith, pastor of the Presbyterian Chapel of the Lakes, in Angola, Indiana, he said, "For some strange reason God believed the cross was necessary for our salvation." See him struggle with this? There must be a reason why Jesus died on the cross. But what is it? (348)

Even if "a benefit solely to God were possible and required," Hick argues, that "a perfect human life would constitute it is, surely, illogical." For a perfect human life is already owed to God by all of us, according to Swinburne, and "therefore could not constitute a reparation-plus-penance for not having lived a perfect life in the past." How can one single perfect human being make up for the sinful lives of every person when God purportedly demands that every person live a perfect life in the first place? A perfect life in Jesus doesn't give to God anything above what he already demands from every person. (349)

The original ending of Mark is inconclusive. No one had seen Jesus, and the women said nothing about what they had seen. No wonder later Christians wanted to write out the further details and add more verses to Mark's gospel. But why Mark ends it this way is a subject for debate. It could be to explain why the story of the empty tomb did not exist before Mark's gospel. The reason was because the women "said nothing to anyone." So in his gospel Mark is purportedly telling "their story" for the first time. According to Peter Kirby: "If the story had been known far and wide, from the beginning of Christianity, ending with the women conveying their message, I would suggest that the author of Mark would not have received it in the form he tells it. For that reason, the story is probably of recent origin in the Gospel of Mark." (366)

There is also the intriguing notion presented by Richard Carrier that "Arimathea" can be translated as "Best Disciple Town." Taken together with Mark's penchant for literary motifs, and the lack of a distinct town, it causes me to believe Mark was doing yet another play on words. The twelve disciples had abandoned Jesus, and now an unknown person, who was from "Best Disciple Town," was the one who stayed with Jesus to the end. The Last Disciple of Christ would have been the title of his bibliography. In fact, if the Creation and Exodus accounts in the Old Testament are mythic parabolic stories, then the Bible contains several literary figures with places of residence who never existed, like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Enoch, Noah, Moses, and Joshua. (370-1)

In the Old Testament, Satan is seen as a servant of God. Walter Wink tells us, "The original faith of Israel actually had no place for Satan. God alone was Lord, and thus whatever happened, for good or ill, was ascribed to God. 'I kill and I make alive,' says the Lord, 'I wound and I heal' (Deut. 32:39; Isa. 45:6-7; 1 Sam. 2:6-7). It was not inconsistent, on the one hand, to believe that God might call Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt, and on the other hand, for God to want to murder him on the way (Exod. 4:24-26). When Pharaoh resisted Moses it was not ascribed to his free will, but to God's hardening of his heart (Exod. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 1:10; 14:4, 8, 17; Josh. 11:20, etc.). Likewise, it is God who sent an evil spirit on Saul (1 Sam. 16:14-16, 23), and it was God who sent a lying spirit to enter the mouths of the four hundred prophets of Ahab (1 Kings 22:22; see 2 Sam. 17:14)."
Walter Wink continues: "One possible translation of 'Yaweh,' God's name, is 'He causes to happen what happens.' If, then, God has caused everything that happens, God must also cause evil. But God was also the God of justice (Gen. 18:25). So how could God be just and still be the one to cause evil? This was the terrible price Israel had been forced to pay for its belief that God was the primary cause of all that happens. Gradually God became differentiated into a 'light' and a 'dark' side, both integral to the Godhead. The bright side came to be represented by the angels, the dark side by Satan and his demons."
There are four important instances in the Old Testament where the word "Satan" is mentioned to describe a celestial being or his work. "In Numbers 22:22-32 we see a clear instance where the word satan describes a celestial being who is not in any way doing anything wrong (as "an adversary"). This being is described as the 'Angel of Yahweh' and is sent by God to be a satan to Balaam. The angel blocks Balaam's path so that his donkey may not pass on by. Then the angel rebukes Balaam." In Job 1-2, Satan cannot be an evil being if he is a fully accepted member of the heavenly court, one of the "sons of God." "Satan's role here is somewhat like an overzealous district attorney, where in his zeal to uncover injustice steps over the edge into entrapment. In all of this Satan manifests no power independent of God, and there is no condemnation of him by God. . . . There is nothing in the context to indicate that the angel is evil." In 2 Samuel 24:1 an angry God incites King David to carry out a wrongful census. But in 1 Chronicles 21:1, which is a post-Babylonian captivity revision of Samuel and Kings, it is now revised to read that "Satan" (used here for the first time as a proper name) is blamed as the one who incited David to carry out the census. Of course, if God indeed used Satan to accomplish his purposes here, then why not just do it himself? Such a relationship seems contrived. In Zechariah 3:1-5, Satan is seen in the role of prosecuting attorney who brings a valid accusation against Joshua, which God rejects because of his mercy. (383-4)

Heaven is described as first-century people would picture perfect bliss. Before the use of gunpowder, thick walls surrounded ancient cities for protection, with sturdy gates. In Revelation (chapter 21) heaven is described as the most safe and beautiful city ever, even though there can be no use for walls in heaven. Every conceivable precious stone was used in the heavenly city, except the diamond—because it was too difficult to cut and polish back then. Platinum was unknown until the sixteenth century, so it's not in the heavenly city either. Since pearls were known in antiquity and were extremely important adornments, the heavenly city gates were made from one single pearl. When people worked from dawn to dusk simply to feed themselves, a heavenly rest (Hebrews 3-4) beginning with a sumptuous feast (Rev. 19:6-9) was the perfect picture of heaven to laborers in Jesus' day. To people who lived in one-room dark houses, heaven could best be described as filled with light and space (John 14:2; Rev. 21:10-27). When only kings could wear a few trinkets of gold, heaven could best be described as having "streets of gold" (Rev. 22:1-3). (387-8)

Conservative Christians and I reject all other religions. I simply reject their Christian religion with the same confidence they have when rejecting these other religions. (403)

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