Ramblings on Faith and Unbelief

Bart Eherman Quotation

I became a believer, and then a follower, of Jesus Christ in college. It wasn’t just academic for me, though the beginning of my life as a believer and follower of Jesus began in an academic environment and was shaped and influenced by academics. I think that’s why I like the academic pursuit of faith even now, over 30 years later.

It’s important for me to be mindful that faith is not purely an intellectual affair. I think I may differ from many people in that respect, but I need to constantly be reminded of it. Faith is a relationship with the Living God; faith is a life and heart commitment; faith triggers action and change or it isn’t real faith.

I know that the words intellectual and faith probably don’t fit together in the minds of some people. Some people see those terms as opposites. They aren’t, but they can chaff with each other at times. Intellectualism, for instance, really does get in the way of faith (more so in fact than the other way around). Faith and intellectual pursuit can be perfectly compatible unless we compartmentalize them and pit them against each other.

Faith, or the lack thereof, depends on something other than intellectual coinage. We need to define faith, though, before we go any further. Faith is not, as the new atheists (like Richard Dawkins) define it: belief in the absence of, or in spite of, facts and knowledge. Faith is a personal commitment to evidence that is believed to be true. Belief is derived from the evidence, and faith is simply commitment and trust in that evidence.

In other words, one can believe that something is true and not have faith in it – not trust it.

I can believe that an elevator is constructed well enough to hold me and not have faith that it will. The evidence may be convincing, but I may not be willing to trust it. I may believe all the evidence that eating fruits and vegetables and natural, whole grains as a primary diet is the healthiest way to eat, but I may not be willing to commit myself to it because I would rather have sweets and red meat and pastries. I can believe that my wife loves me, but not trust that she will stay with me. I can believe she is the woman for me, but I may not be committed to stay with her.

These examples show different angles to the facets of faith, and none of them involve believing in something in the absence of or in spite of the factual evidence. Faith in God is similar to these examples.

The quotation above is from Bart Ehrman. He is a Wheaton College, Moody College and Princeton Theological Seminary graduate. He is now a professor at North Carolina and a respected New Testament scholar. Somewhere along the way in his life he stopped having faith and stopped believing in Jesus. He once professed faith in Jesus, and now he doesn’t.

Erhman once assumed that God exists, but now he doesn’t. It may seem so fundamental that it is obvious, I think sometimes we miss the obvious: a person’s initial assumption, the beginning point of reference, determines everything. Our intellectual theses are built on those assumptions, but we don’t often put our assumptions to the test.

I have over 30 years (nearly 40 to be exact) thinking on these things. From all the things I have read, observed and reasoned through, it seems to me that our initial assumptions often have little to do with any objective intellectual process, and have more to do with our feelings and desires.

Let’s take God, for instance. God (in the capital G, monotheistic sense) means the first cause of the universe we live in, the creator of the universe, the One who caused it to exist and who sustains its existence. If such a being exists, we owe our existence to God, and we live in relation to God as a created being to its Creator. That relationship strongly implies some responsibility, accountability or (at least) some inferiority in our position compared to God.

That, I think, is the rub for many people. We don’t want to be in a subservient position. We want to be our own gods. Many an atheist turned believer has acknowledged that this was the stumbling block. NT Wright thinks it’s no coincidence that many seminary students become liberal in college at the same time that they have gained personal freedoms and sexual maturity.

But continuing on. The idea of God is that of a supreme being, a “maximal being“, as Dr. William Lane Craig describes it. Think of God as the being that is maximally great, maximally good, maximally just, maximally loving, etc.

We can believe in God, but have no faith in Him – meaning that we have not committed ourselves in trust or relationship to God the Creator. We can believe that God exists and have no interest, desire or inclination to know anything about God or to pursue relationship with God. Maybe we doubt we even can have a relationship with God or that we can really know anything about God.

I think many people are in this position. This would accurately describe my position as a freshman entering college. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God; I just didn’t think about God. I didn’t care to know God or think that I could know God.

I was keenly interested in truth, however. I wanted to know things. I also had this nagging sense of meaninglessness and strong desire to find meaning in life. I could not have even described why, I am quite sure, but it was palpable in its importance to me at that time.

This inner urge to find meaning led me to consider “God” (whatever God was). I had rejected the idea that religion, as an institution, could take me where I longed to go. By faith, I mean belief turned into action (some commitment to the evidence), and the action was the pursuit of the knowledge of truth and meaning in life, which I figured was “God” though I might not have described it that way.

I would have not been able to say whether God was a “being” at that point. I leaned heavily toward Buddhism and the idea that “God” is a state of consciousness in which harmony with all things is realized. In the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, of course, God is a being who makes strong moral demands. This was not a God I desired to know at the time.

Belief in God might compel us to strive to be “good”. It seems to motivate the average person to some acceptance of a standard of behavior that ought to be followed, though disagreement over the details of that standard may exist. We have this sense that “God” is related to that standard and somehow exemplifies it, but each of us are left to our own devices to figure it out or to adopt a standard to which we are willing to commit.

Faith in Jesus is a different thing altogether. The evidence presented to us in the four canonical Gospels, the Book of Acts and the letters from Paul and other initial followers of Jesus is that God introduced Himself into human history by taking on the form of a man (Jesus). He lived a human life as we do, but He was in (in human form) directly in communication with God the Father – somehow God was both omniscient, omnipresent and in every way “maximal” while appearing in the form of a man.

And in doing this, God revealed and communicated Himself to us in human form. Jesus (God in human flesh) lived out the perfect life in keeping with all that God had previously instructed through communication with men in the past, and He submitted Himself to die at the hands of men for crimes He didn’t commit.

I won’t get into the “why” in this piece, because the focus of these ramblings today are not the “why”.

The evidence from the accounts we have is that this Jesus, then, rose from the dead and appeared to many people – well over 500 (See 1 Corinthians 15). This Jesus compelled people during his life, and after his death and resurrection, and all people thereafter to “follow” Him and commit to Him as their Lord and Savior. That is faith in Jesus – committing to Him (trusting Him) as Lord and Savior – and that commitment necessarily entails certain action that should follow – or it isn’t faith. (Faith without the fruit is dead – is not faith).

The evidence lies chiefly in the writings of the 1st Century people who trusted and committed themselves to (had faith in) Jesus. Many people today are skeptical of those writings, though the skepticism today is not much different, really, than the skepticism of the 1st Century people who didn’t trust in or commit to (have faith in) Jesus, except that the centuries that separate us from those times have added layers of arguments for the skeptics.

One very modern layer is the notion that this man, Jesus, never even existed. As Bart Ehrman, the agnostic (maybe atheist) New Testament scholar freely and forcefully states, however, such a notion flies in the face of all the evidence. Whether such a man existed is a matter of historical fact, attested by more than adequate historical documentation and evidence from friendly, neutral and hostile sources alike. The existence of the man, Jesus, is as much historical fact as Aristotle, Cleopatra or any other figure referenced in historical documents.

The real issue today, as it was in Jesus’s time, is whether to believe what Jesus said and have faith in Him. The centuries have not changed the fundamental assertions and challenges that Jesus made. Some people who watched Jesus perform miracles in their presence did not believe or have faith in Him. Others did, and their testimonies included claims of change deep within them by something called the Holy Spirit, who Jesus claimed to be on a par with Himself.

Jesus claims that the entire Old Testament speaks of and points to Him. He and His followers claim that Jesus is the “Emmanuel” (translated “God with us”) spoken of by Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 7:14; 8:7-10). His followers claimed in the 1st Century that the Holy Spirit that Jesus spoke of came upon them and confirmed what Jesus said, guided them and became present within in them. People claim the same thing today.

The historical evidence clearly indicates that Jesus was a man who lived in the 1st Century, claimed to be God in the flesh, died on a cross and rose from the dead according to his followers. Yes, the fact that people claim that Jesus rose from the dead is also a historical fact. The resurrection claim was made very shortly after He died, and the claim of resurrection was maintained throughout the lives of those early followers, even at the cost of their lives.

The issue in the 1st Century is the same issue we face today: was Jesus who He said He was? Jesus claimed that He was God. While people have tried to quibble with the statements, it’s pretty clear that Jesus thought He was God and claimed He was God.

The Bart Erhman’s of the world reject the truth of those claims, but they do not deny that Jesus lived or made those claims. They aren’t willing to place their faith or trust in Jesus as God, but they don’t deny that Jesus lived and claimed to be God in the flesh.

Those are pretty bold claims! We can’t side step them by thinking Jesus didn’t live or didn’t claim He was God. If the claims are true, we dare not brush them aside. Our very existence and reason for being are wrapped up in those claims if Jesus really is/was God incarnate. Those claims change everything – if they are true.

If they are true, and you commit to it, you are promised the Holy Spirit (God with you). In that way, you not only have the historical evidence, but the evidence of the changing power of God within you to confirm it.

Given the magnitude and significance of the claims, if they are true, it only seems reasonable to check them out thoroughly, rather than reject them out of hand.

Interestingly, I just read a piece by Peter Hichens, brother of the late, outspoken atheist, Christopher Hichens, How I found God and Peace with My Atheist Brother. It seems to fit in the vein of my thinking today. The article speaks of the different directions the brothers chose to go. Though they both rejected Christianity for the embrace of atheism as youths, Peter Hichens traveled back across the divide:

As he has become more certain about the non-existence of God, I have become more convinced we cannot know such a thing in the way we know anything else, and so must choose whether to believe or not.

His brother, did not make his way back to faith.

And so I end these ramblings. Not quite the ending with impact I might have imagined, but I warned that these are just ramblings. As significant an issue the claims of Jesus are, if we take them at their face value, staring at us out of the pages of history, they are often glossed over as myth. Yet, they are nothing of the sort. Anyone who wants to maintain a modicum of intellectual honesty and integrity shouldn’t dismiss the historical Jesus that easily.

Still, the claims are fantastic. Some reject them for no other reason. Some reject them for other reasons. They cannot be rejected on the proposition that Jesus is a myth or did not say what he said – not with any degree of historical integrity. On that basis, the urgency and import of those claims are worthy of consideration, as there could be nothing of greater import, if they are true.

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