Lately I’ve been asking myself, “What exactly made me believe anyway?”. Besides the emotions, there were intellectual arguments that I used to convince myself (see list below). After a Methodist childhood and Atheist college years, I began my adult life as a discontented spiritual seeker. There was also some naivete and gullibility at work. Enter a Christian friend who seemed to have some wisdom and peace of mind. After interrogating him, I decided to read the Gospels for myself “with an open mind”. It was all downhill from there. I started visiting every church in town and found one that seemed cool and progressive.
For someone who wasn’t a Christian for very long – I went deep. I was baptized (full immersion) in front of my new congregation. I signed up for every group, class, and Bible study. On my own I became determined to read the entire Bible and read for hours every night. I spent forever online searching for Christian rock that wasn’t corny. I bought a stack of pocket-size Gospel of John booklets and stealthily placed them around town. I even asked a woman to pray with me – on a first date. I was in a constant state of self-indoctrination. Always with the worship music or Christian audiobook in the car. Always looking for a better a better Bible. All this was needed to brainwash myself and push out the gnawing doubts.
It was intoxicating and fulfilling – for a while. But I had major hang-ups, like the fact that I wasn’t really into Jesus. I related more to the personal God of the Psalms. The Gospel of John was beautiful and inspiring, but the angry Jesus in Mark almost ruined it. I had too many questions also. Most people didn’t seem conflicted with why a loving God would create an eternal torture chamber. More than once I was called a “thinker”. I struggled socially. After a few years I left the church feeling disillusioned and disappointed. I had every intention of finding a new church, but time passed and I never did. I realized I had overdosed on Christianity and stopped with the Bible and music. Slowly, I naturally decompressed from my indoctrination. It was a very gradual process of resetting back to my default.
After two years of avoiding the subject of religion completely, I decided to rewatch Julia Sweeny’s Letting Go of God. Loved it. I became a huge fan of Bart Ehrman . I read Elaine Pagels, Valerie Tarico, Sam Harris, Robert Ingersoll, and Thomas Paine. I came to see that all religions are the same. Ancient tribes evolved unique religions, just like they evolved unique languages. Wanting the entire world to be Christian is like wanting the entire world to speak English. Tolerance returned to me and that feeling of spiritual superiority faded. I became passionate about topics that I never was as a Christian. Things like human rights, free speech, democracy, and the plight of ex-Muslims. I feel like I have finally matured. Better late than never.
What exactly made me believe anyway?
1. Reading the Gospels as (exaggerated) historical biographies
I have learned that the Gospels were not written to document history. They are evangelical tools, designed to make you believe. “…these are written so that you may come to believe” (John 20:31). The Gospels contradict each other theologically and are highly fictionalized. They were written by people with an agenda.
2. Drawing inspiration from former agnostics like C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis was a brilliant wordsmith and could have made any religion sound just as beautiful and poetic. He shares this talent with the writer of the Gospel of John and probably Jesus himself. People who are great with words or public speaking can make others believe anything (think L. Ron Hubbard).
3. C.S. Lewis’ “Liar, Lunatic, Lord” argument
Tolerance returned to me and that feeling of spiritual superiority faded. I became passionate about topics that I never was as a Christian. Why does there have to be just three choices? I have a fourth one – delusional. Hyper-religious with delusions of grandeur. There is a broad spectrum of delusional thinking, not just lunacy. Joan of Arc was delusional but continued to be productive. People did think Jesus was disturbed (including his family, Mark 3:21) but he was obviously clear-headed and charismatic enough to gain followers regardless.
4. “Why would the disciples go their deaths for something that wasn’t true?”
It happens all the time. People sacrifice themselves for misguided causes every day. There are the obvious examples of Islamic jihadists and the followers of Jim Jones and David Koresh. There is also every sincere soldier or freedom fighter who died for a cause that turned out to be wrong.
5. “Why would the disciples lie?”
There must have been some opportunists who used their Jesus story to gather a following. And a few people probably did think they saw the resurrected Jesus (Mark 16:12) the same way people see the virgin Mary today. I can also imagine how an empty tomb (assuming there was an empty tomb) could cause a superstitious mind to jump to conclusions.
6. Prophesies of Jesus in the Old Testament
It seems obvious that the early Christians read Jesus into the scriptures (Isaiah 53:12, 61:1). Christians still do it today – read the bible with Jesus on the brain. It involves major cherry picking as well. It makes a difference which translation is used too. Psalm 22:16 can either be “… they pierce my hands and my feet” (NIV) or “My hands and feet have shriveled” (NRSV)
7. Truth statements like “… we know that his testimony is true.” (John 21:24) and Jesus’ constant use of “Truly I tell you…” (Matt. 16:28)
It’s unclear who exactly is the “we” or “his” in John 21. It’s heresy. Jesus probably did believe he was telling the truth, but “Truly I tell you” could have been added for effect by the writer of Matthew. Plus, I am usually suspicious when people start their sentences with “To tell you the truth…” or “Honestly…”
8. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)
I am convinced that the historical Jesus did not claim to be God. He probably thought of himself as the Messiah or the ‘son of man’, but not the Father. The Gospel of John is not historically reliable. The words reflect less on Jesus and more on the evangelist who wrote it.
9. Healing miracles like ‘A Man Born Blind Receives Sight’ (John 9)
Every religion on earth has miracle stories. Modern gurus are constantly credited with miracles. Faith healers and shamans are everywhere. Sometimes they can have a temporary placebo effect. My favorite story of faith healing is of the shipwrecked conquistador Cabeza de Vaca.
10. DNA repair enzymes – used as proof of “Intelligent Design”
These little guys repair and rebuild DNA strands. They are fascinating – mind boggling – but no need to bring in the supernatural. It’s chemistry. I had made the age-old blunder of seeing something incomprehensible and calling it ‘magic’. I believe this blunder is the origin of superstition, religion, and Intelligent Design.