This is a continuation of observations in regard to a podcast interview of self-described agnostic, New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, by the atheist, Sam Harris. In the first installment, I focused on Ehrman’s personal story about “losing his faith” as he transitioned from high school to Moody Bible Institute to Wheaton College to Princeton Theological Seminary. Along the way, he went from fundamentalist to agnostic. In many ways, though, he never left his fundamentalist view of the Bible.
Ehrman says that he began to shed his fundamentalist views as he learned the original languages and began to read scripture in those original languages. He describes how his rigid, nonintellectual reading of the scriptures began to crumble as he discovered issues with the Bible that didn’t allow such a strict interpretation of a text considered to be inerrant.
As the interview progresses, Erhman relates that he used to believe in a literal rapture, alluding to the Book of Revelations read in light of 1st Thessalonians (being caught up in the air). Erhman comments, “I not only believed in the rapture, I knew it was going to happen in the late 80’s” (followed by a hearty guffaw). He goes on to describe that his loss of faith was a long process, but the “rapture was one of the first things to go”.
This was Ehrman’s fundamentalism, but “the rapture” is hardly a point of “doctrine” on which even fundamentalists agree, let alone the rest of the believing world. The verses in the Bible from which the idea of a rapture has been formulated are few, and they are wrought with difficulty in the interpretation, like the visions in Revelations and other apocalyptic writings. Many speculations have been suggested, but the whole idea is quite ancillary to the central tenets of the faith.
A person certainly doesn’t have to believe in the rapture or in any particular formulation of the rapture to believe in God or to have faith in Jesus Christ.
We often get the peripheral things inextricably intertwined with the essential things in our minds, and it’s hard to untangle them. This is the danger of placing too much importance on peripheral things, especially peripheral things with as little biblical support as the rapture: when the peripheral things begin to unravel, they are likely to begin to unwind the essential things if we have bundled them too tightly.
Rigid and wooden fundamentalism is brittle for that very reason. It’s an all or nothing way of looking at scripture that cements secondary things into the primary framework of our belief system. We have to hold on tightly to the whole thing to keep the faith. When we allow any part of it to come unraveled, it’s likely to unravel the whole thing. The issue isn’t with Scripture, however; the issue is with the approach.