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).