This blog piece is a continuation in a series of articles commenting on the podcast interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris. We trace Bart Ehrman’s early fundamentalist experience through the “loss” of his faith and the fundamentalism that still informs Ehrman’s view of the Bible, albeit not from a believing position anymore. I explore some factors from Ehrman’s story that may explain his turn away from belief in God, and the “exceedingly high” bar skeptics set for miracles that allows them to discount the Bible without seriously considering the evidence.
Ehrman suggests, reasonably, that the resurrection is the foundation for Christian belief, but he and Harris quickly gloss over the evidence. From the resurrection, the discussion turns to focus on heaven and hell. Erhman remarks that, when he was a fundamentalist Christian, he believed in a literal heaven and a literal hell. He described a literal hell with traditional fire and brimstone.
I have noted, as have other people in the past, that atheists and agnostics often take the same literal approach to scripture as “fundamentalists” do. This is an example of what I mean by that. It’s possible that hell is literal fire and brimstone, but it’s possible it isn’t. There are a number of different biblical theories about hell, even among evangelicals, and even more if we go to the more mainstream denominations.
Many Christian scholars do not believe that hell is literally fire and brimstone. They make a good case that the language is metaphorical, rather than literal. One of the hallmarks of a fundamentalist (as with an atheist or agnostic) interpretation of the Bible is the lack of nuance and sophistication. Both viewpoints tend to fail to appreciate and understand metaphor.
Of course, sometimes a text might be taken literally and metaphorically, and a text may have literal meaning and metaphoric meaning that are both appropriate. A fundamentalist, though, tends to want to read everything literally, and skeptics do the same thing.
The result for the fundamentalist is a kind of belief that ignores evidence to the contrary, and for the atheist the result is total rejection of the Bible. The fundamentalists and the skeptics ironically approach Scripture in the same way. This leads to a false dichotomy: we either must accept everything (regardless of the evidence) or accept nothing (in spite of the evidence).
Erhman talks about the arrogance of believing that certain people are going to heaven and certain people are going to hell. And certainly there is arrogance to the notion that we can make those judgments ourselves, even if hell really is fire and brimstone. Only God sees and knows the individual, human heart.
Harris asks Ehrman whether “good people” with whom Erhman had connection were the ones who challenged that “arrogance” (of knowing nonbelievers are going to hell) in him. Harris’s question is loaded with the assumption that only “good people” don’t believe in hell.
If hell is reality, however, what is good about not believing it? Is it good not to believe in gravity because gravity kills people in horrendous ways when they fall from cliffs, towers and other high places?
Whether hell exists (regardless of what it might be) has nothing more to do with us and our morality than gravity does. If there be any reality to hell, it simply is whatever it is.
Packed into Harris’s question also is the assumption that he (and Ehrman) are reasonable arbiters of goodness. I simply point that out, recognizing that many people make the assumption that they and people like them have a better handle on what is good than others who don’t believe like them.
What seems oddest to me, though, is that modern atheists like Harris have such an overtly moral tone. By what objective standard do atheists judge anyone? What is “good” to an atheist who is merely marching to his own DNA? Why is “good” even relevant to an atheist?
Perhaps one of the most intriguing exchanges begins with a question by Harris to Erhman about what one would believe after reading the Bible from cover to cover without the aid of interpreters like Dante or Milton, asks Harris. Erhman’s immediate response is that “it depends on the assumptions of the reader”.
On this statement, I think Erhman is exactly correct. We often do bring our own assumptions to the text, and we filter our understanding of the text through those assumptions. A case in point would be the a priori assumption that miracles can’t happen and don’t happen, and therefore the miraculous things described in the Bible didn’t happen.
Of course, someone could come to the text with the exact opposite assumption, already believing in the God of the Bible, and in Jesus, and a skeptic would be correct in saying that such a person is predisposed to believe everything that it says. These things cut both ways.
Ehrman, I think would say that we are right to bring our assumptions to the text. He often asserts the claim that we don’t have the words that were originally written, that they have been changed so many times over the years that we can’t know what was originally written. Thus, I think he would say we ought to bring our own assumptions to the text and interpret it as we will.
His position, as I have said before, is postmodern. He doesn’t trust the text of the Bible (and maybe not any ancient text), so what difference does it make if we bring our own assumptions to it? We might as well see it as we want to see, because we can’t really know what it actually said anyway.
For the post-modernist, it doesn’t matter so much what the original author meant. The most important thing is what the reader gets out of it. Modern literary criticism doesn’t care to let the text speak for itself; it is more interested in what the reader has to say about it. Ehrman’s approach to the Bible is very post-modern.
Of course, Ehrman would say we can trust science and reason. His reason tells him that miracles are impossible, so he would defend that assumption on that basis, I assume. Other assumptions he makes are much less scientific and part of a narrative that he superimposes on the Bible that makes sense to him.
Harris asks Erhman throughout the interview to describe what a fundamentalist Christian would believe, or what Erhman did believe as a fundamentalist Christian, as a way of gaining some understanding of what Christianity is. Of course, Erhman isn’t a Christian. He doesn’t believe. Yet, Harris assumes that Ehrman can speak adequately for people who do believe.
The exercise would be similar to asking a Young Earth creationist who does not believe in evolution to describe what it’s like to believe in an old Earth and in evolution. I am sure that such a person could probably give a summary that is somewhat true, but it would oversimplified, without nuance or depth or any real force, precisely because they don’t believe it.
In this context, Erhman gives a “biblical” defense of the idea of hell. He says the idea of hell progressed the Old Testament term, sheol (a grave, or pit), into the idea of a “lake of fire”, which we see in Revelation. Erhman says that a Christian would explain this by a process of progressive revelation where the truth only unfolds over time from sheol to a lake of fire. He says this is similar to the doctrine of abrogation that Muslims use in regard to the Quran.
Ehrman does exactly what we might expect of someone trying to explain something he doesn’t believe in. He grossly oversimplifies the discussion, and he compares it to something else he doesn’t believe in.
The fact is that there is no one way that Christians view and try to make sense of hell as it is mentioned in the Bible. Ehrman (and Harris) hold up a “fundamentalist” (literal) interpretation, as if there is no other way of making sense of hell. (Even evangelicals have four or more theories of hell).
Further, Erhman’s comparison to the abrogation doctrine in Islam is not accurate. Abrogation refers to later statements in the Quran that expressly reject earlier statements in the Quran. The doctrine of abrogation, as it is stated in the Quaran, is nothing like what we read in the Bible. Ehrman should know that. In fact, he probably does know that, but he conflates abrogation with how the biblical text reads because the nuance doesn’t matter to him.
The Quran is one writing authored by one man during a short time span. The Bible is many writings written by many people over more than one thousand years. No one taking either book seriously would lump them together like that or claim that the Islamic doctrine of abrogation is found in the Bible.
Erhman’s description of what Christians would believe is very wooden, without any nuance or depth. For one thing, he makes no distinction between genres in the Bible. The Book of Revelation, for instance, is apocryphal literature written in very symbolic and metaphorical language. If there is any book in the Bible that should not be taken “literally”, it is the Book of Revelation.
Revelation is similar in genre to the Book of Daniel, except that Daniel provides the interpretation for the visions Daniel describes. The interpretation Daniel provides is extremely metaphoric and symbolic. Extrapolating from Daniel suggests that we should not take Revelation “literally” (though many people have tried).
It’s curious that Erhman, being a New Testament scholar, does not address nuance or depth in Biblical understanding. Ehrman has continued to hold onto a fundamentalist mindset, not even acknowledging that most scholars, most believing scholars, do not view the Bible that way.
In regard to the sweep of the Bible, from Adam and Eve to the Kingdom of God on Earth that Jesus spoke about, Erhman describes a very fundamentalist, young earth creationist kind of view. He says that Christians believe that the Earth was originally created as a paradise in which Adam and Eve lived, and the Earth will be returned to the paradise it originally was. This is in keeping with a “literal” reading of Genesis championed by young earth creationists who have a fundamentalist view of the Bible. They are a minority of Christians in the world.
I put “literal” in quotation marks because, frankly, a literal reading of Genesis suggests something very different than what Ehrman (and young earth creationists) state. (See Is Young-Earth Creationism another Gospel?) All of this just highlights that Erhman is still very much a fundamentalist. He has just switched camps from believer to nonbeliever.
I will wrap this series of comments up in the following post. I don’t mean to judge Bart Erhman, but to comment about his explanation of what is Christianity, which is the topic of the interview. If Sam Harris wants to view Christianity from a “different angle”, he should interview a scholarly believer. Not another unbeliever like himself. And if he does that, I encourage him to have the same kind of generous conversation that he has with Erhman, allowing a believing scholar to provide the nuance and depth that Ehrman lacks.
I also don’t mean to judge “fundamentalists”. Frankly, I could not even define that term or describe exactly who those “fundamentalists” are. It’s a term that has taken on very different meanings over the years, and carries a lot of confusion and misunderstanding today. Most skeptics use the term pejoratively and synonymously with “Christian”, but I doubt most Christians could even agree on what it means. But, that is a subject for another article, perhaps.
This is the fifth article in a series of articles on the interview of Bart Erhman by Sam Harris. I will wrap up the series in the next blog article summarizing the Erhman/Harris interview.