Sam Harris Podcast Interviews Bart Ehrman – Part 5 – Atheists & Fundamentalists May Be Two Sides of the Same Coin

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.

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).

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast Interviews Bart Ehrman – Part 5 – Atheists & Fundamentalists May Be Two Sides of the Same Coin”

Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism

A rigid and wooden fundamentalism is an all or nothing way of looking at scripture that cements secondary things into the primary framework of our belief system.

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).[1]  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[2], 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.

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism”

The Bible: All or Nothing?


As Christians, we need to be honest about the weaknesses of our claims so that we can deal with them effectively. We sometimes allow ourselves to be painted into corners that we should be able to avoid if we are honest about those weaknesses. I am reminded of the biblical idea that God is strong in our weakness.

So, what am I talking about? I am talking about the “fundamentalist” positions that we allow skeptics to pin on us. I say that these positions have been pinned on us because fundamentalism is a product of a word war, in my assessment, and one which we have lost to the definition of the word that comes largely from those who seek to discredit us.

Liberal progressive types are masters at word wars and reinventing words. They know how important words and meanings of words are in manipulating culture. While a fundamentalist was once someone who subscribed to the fundamentals of faith, a fundamentalist is now a dogmatic, backwards, literalist who denies obvious evidence against a strained and rigid view of the Bible – according the naysayers.

To be fair, however, some Christians prove the point. Some Christians have swallowed the hook, believing that we fight an all or nothing battle. That the battle lines have been drawn on the “literal” interpretation of the Bible, rather than something else (like Christ and him crucified) is extremely unfortunate.

Interestingly, the “new atheists” and modern skeptics exhibit the same fundamentalism that they have tried to pin on all Christians who take the Bible seriously, and that has decidedly turned the battleground in our favor. If we would only seize the opportunity and get ourselves out of the corners into which we have retreated. Continue reading “The Bible: All or Nothing?”

Conservatives, Progressives and Sheep

Light Post Against WoodsChristians are a very diverse group of people. From fundamentalists to Unitarians, there is a quite a range of beliefs. There seems to be little in common at the ends of the spectrum, and sometimes even from the middle to the ends.

The temptations are to stick stubbornly to one set of beliefs to the exclusion of others or to accept them all.

It can be rather daunting to consider all of the very earnestly and sincerely held beliefs of people who call themselves by the label “Christian”. Live and let live is certainly my tendency. When Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate”; however, I want to be one who enters that narrow gate (or door), wherever it is! For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” (Matt. 7:13-14 & Luke 13-23-34 (door)) Much rests on being “right”.

There are certain accepted, fundamental and core doctrinal statements that most of the Christian world accepts. Jesus was God who came in the flesh, was born of the virgin Mary, lived a sinless life, suffered and died on the cross and rose again. He died as atonement for our sins, and by his death and resurrection we are forgiven and may enter into fellowship with God. Jesus was God and man. He is part of the godhead – being God the Father, God the Son & God the Holy Spirit – three in one. There are certain things that are accepted by most people who call themselves Christian. Is this the narrow gate? (or the wide path?)

There were certain things that were accepted by the religious leaders of Jesus’s time, too, and it turns out they were wrong about many of those things. Jesus called into question the spiritual interpretations and conventions of His time. The Sadducees and Pharisees were the spiritual leaders, and they more or less represented the conservative and progressive points of view. The Sadducees were the conservative “old believers”, accepting only the Mosaic Law and rejecting the newer revelation. They were the aristocratic priesthood focusing on temple worship. The Pharisees were the progressives, embracing the newer revelation (the rest of our Old Testament), believing in resurrection, angels, spirits and rewards and punishments after death.

The Pharisees were a lay group of priests and more in touch with the common man. That may explain why Jesus seemed to run into them more often. Significantly, though, Jesus raised the ire and was rejected by both groups. It seems both the conservatives and progressives of the day missed the boat. (And, that is the problem with labels.)

Jesus did not embrace the conventional beliefs of his day. He was God who became man and walked among His own people, and his own people knew Him not. He seemed attracted most to the irreligious and sinners.

Jesus took issue with accepted beliefs of religious leaders in His time (calling the Pharisees such endearing terms as “white-washed tombs”!), but we also see him describing the right way as narrow and few will find it. No wonder so many Christian groups see themselves as the only way. Who wants to admit their way is not “the” way, especially if there is only one Way.

I am not sure we can really compare today with the time of Jesus. God was doing a new thing, something that had never been done. God was inserting Himself into His own creation and moving the story of man in a whole new direction. Still, I think it is noteworthy that both the conservative and progressive religious leaders had issues with Jesus, and He with them.

When Jesus addressed the Samaritan woman at the well, he was speaking to one who would be rejected by both camps of Jews. She questioned why He, a Jew, would ask her, a Samaritan, for water. Jews and Samaritans had fundamental disagreements over where to worship and who were the chosen people of God. There was even a greater chasm between Jews and Samaritans than Sadducees and Pharisees. Jesus blew through the doctrinal divide by speaking of living water that quenches thirst so that anyone drinking of it will never thirst again.

It was not that Jesus was rejecting what we might call “closed-minded” thinking. He was rejecting wrong thinking. Jesus clearly thought it important that people believe and understand truth. Jesus says one of the most “closed-minded” things imaginable when He said He is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the father except through Him. (John 14:6)

And, so the “dilemma” continues: who is right and who is wrong? In some sense, it is not a matter of right and wrong thinking. When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus whether the Samaritans who worshiped on their own mountain or the Jews who worshipped in Jerusalem were right, Jesus threw her a curve ball: it is not where you worship, but who you worship (the Father) and how (in spirit and truth).

Jesus says the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, and so His followers will hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow Him. (John 10:7-11)

I was prompted to write this after reading an article on 16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible compared to how fundamentalists interpret the Bible.

I do not want to be dismissive of doctrine. I am reminded that, from early on, the disciples and apostles who were entrusted with the very message of Jesus, delivered to them in person and visited upon them by the Holy Spirit in dramatic fashion on the Day of Pentecost, were very protective of that message. Examples of their concern for the truth of the message exist throughout the New Testament. The message, itself, is obviously of central importance.

They also learned that things like the food a person eats, whether a person is circumcised or uncircumcised, whether a person is a Jew or a Gentile does not matter. It does not matter if a person worships on a mountain or in Jerusalem, in a temple or not in a temple; what matters is the living water, God the Father, worshiping in spirit and truth. It is a matter of the heart. The Shepherd calls His sheep, and the sheep know His voice. We are ultimately all either in a relationship with our God or not. And that makes all the difference that matters.