Even though my son was a self-declared atheist, he attended Liberty University — the same Christian college I attended — with a scholarship. While there, his fellow students would often learn that he didn’t believe in God. The end result was NOT good as you might imagine. My son shared with me later that students would say incredibly mean things to him when they learned of his disbelief. They were often very ugly about it. He was dismayed to encounter so many ignorant, arrogant and hateful people at a Christian college. A few took the time to get to know him and they realized that he was a nice young man with a good sense of humor. He was well read, intelligent and rational. But understandably, his fellow students wondered why he remained a student there. The simple answer? College is expensive!
My son also shared this unusual story. He remembers being asked to be president of a new computer science club that others were trying to form. He was told to sign a statement which had an unexpected stipulation: “only a Christian can be a club president, please swear and attest that you are a Christian.” He took the form, crossed that section out with red ink, and replaced it with a paragraph from the US Constitution:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
While the no religious test clause wasn’t applicable to a private college club, he wanted to make a point. The funny thing was, they still accepted his application for club president and elected him! Then one night during a big meeting, he was asked to open in prayer. He responded rather nonchalantly, “I can’t do that. I don’t pray.” He told me, “I have never seen so many people quickly turn and get so butt hurt so fast.”
During my son’s college years, I continued to talk with him when I could, mostly via email. Around this same time, I became more fascinated in the religious beliefs of other faiths. Muslims and Mormons, for example, were often on my mind. They are certainly worlds apart in theology but nonetheless there were things about their beliefs that both bothered me and fascinated me, because I couldn’t understand how someone could believe the things that they do. In the case of Muslim extremists, it was very disturbing that men could be so driven by their belief system that they would kill apostates and infidels (non-believers). The tragedy of “9/11” in New York is a most painful reminder. Apparently there are verses in the Quran that command death to apostates.
In contrast, Mormons (Latter Day Saints) tended to be very kind and gentle. I had the opportunity to work with many Mormons over the years, and I enjoyed several visits to Utah and Salt Lake City. In my own personal experience, Mormons tended to be some of the nicest people I’d ever met. They were also very devout, and they could not be swayed from their steadfast faith by any rational argument. Those interactions caused me to think, “how could those who believe such odd teachings as the Mormons…. how could they be so zealous and upright?”. And why won’t they listen to reason?.
The origins of the Mormon faith are tied to the visions of a young Joseph Smith who lived in upstate New York. He often went on searches for treasure. In 1823, Smith said an angel directed him to where a buried book written on golden plates could be found, which contained the religious history of an ancient people in America. Smith apparently translated and published what was written on these plates in March 1830 as the Book of Mormon, named after Mormon, the ancient prophet/historian who compiled the book. It told the story of a lost race of Jewish people who traveled by boat from the middle east to North America, some of whom supposedly became our native Americans. The Book of Mormon tells of Jesus who visited them shortly after his resurrection. Smith said that the gold plates that contained the stories were taken up to heaven and thus were not available to be seen by others, except by a few early witnesses.
It’s not my intent to scrutinize the Mormon story in detail here, but I want to make the point that I did choose to acquire the Book of Mormon and research their beliefs using a rational logical mind. My thoughts on Mormonism were critical because after considering their teachings and origins, I found it entirely preposterous. It was crazy!! This conclusion presented a problem though. If it was appropriate to analyze and use critical thinking about other religions, why should the Bible be immune from that same sort of scrutiny? But since I believed the Bible held ultimate truth, it was only fair and appropriate to think rationally about the Bible because real truth could survive scrutiny.
My Early Troubling Thoughts
I started to recall my early days at Bible college (Liberty University). During my first year there (1983 – 1984), I remember being shocked to learn that the Bible we have today was in dispute for centuries in the early church. There was significant debate over which books were inspired or not inspired by God. It wasn’t until the fourth century that all of the books currently found in the New Testament were finally recognized and accepted (the book of Revelation took the longest to be accepted). The Catholic church includes 9 additional books (the Apocrypha) which most Protestant churches reject as being uninspired and filled with error.
I remembered how disturbing that was to discover.
It was also troubling that the gospels and most of the New Testament letters were written at least 30 years, or many cases, over 40 years after Christ. Put another way, there are no contemporary historical accounts written during or immediately after the life of Jesus. Also upsetting is that most of the gospels were not written by any of the apostles (e.g., the gospel books called Matthew, Mark and Luke were not written by any of the actual 12 apostles). They weren’t even written in a first-person perspective, nor even in the language spoken by the common man of that area. Instead, it is supposed that the early church carried on an oral tradition of sharing the story and teachings of Jesus, and that the gospel of Mark was the earliest gospel to be written. Based on close analysis of the oldest parchments and manuscripts, Bible scholars concluded that the books we call Matthew and Luke contained sections that duplicate the book of Mark in some areas, while being new or different in other areas. There’s also dispute on who wrote the gospel of John (the writer never declares himself) but the church has assumed a Johannine authorship. Technically, all four gospels are anonymous in their authorship.
I found all of this troubling because, if God’s word and the accuracy thereof is so important and critical, why would there have been any dispute or delay in their writing? Why would God permit any confusion about authorship? If God is in control and He was able to create billions of stars and galaxies, why couldn’t He have caused such critically important books to have been written immediately after the resurrection of Christ (or even during Christ’s life on earth)? And why were the approved gospels not written by his actual apostles?
And why was the gospel of Peter rejected while the other gospels were accepted even though their authorship was so questionable?*
One of the truly odd aspects to all of this is that seminary students learn the details regarding the historical nature of the Bible during their college years. And as a result, one of two things usually happen. Many are able to compartmentalize the issues in their mind and not let it bother them too deeply. Perhaps some also feel too invested in it all, and they don’t even want to consider the implications. But there are others, who have their faith shaken to the point that they decide to choose a new career path.
The ministry students who continue in the faith become part of the inner circle, and they typically don’t want to talk about the troubling issues with the Biblical text and its questionable history. Even among my fellow seminary students, we didn’t discuss it.
During college, I also took a church history class where I learned about the past actions of the Christian church, which included the creation of the Inquisition — to investigate and punish those guilty of heresy. What was considered heresy? The list included: early scientists who tried to tell others that the earth was a globe (rather than a flat surface); and those who tried to inform us that the earth revolved around the sun (not the other way around). The Inquisition also famously oversaw the execution of tens of thousands of women who were merely suspected of witchcraft.
The church also: had involvement in the Atlantic slave trade; defended slavery as a Christian obligation; lynched African Americans; colonized “natives” the world over; and they participated in projects of genocide. The history of the early Christian Church included many dark and horrific things, but I chose to chalk it up to the devil’s role of attacking and subverting anything good in the world.
Looking back on this, I suppose my excitement and euphoria of higher learning helped me to compartmentalize these troubling issues. I pushed it to the side. But now as an older adult with life experience, it was far more disturbing to reflect on. I hated not having satisfying answers to these significant concerns. I also hated those feelings of doubt about the integrity and inerrancy of the Bible. I was taught to revere faith and cast aside doubt. So I continued the conscious choice to conclude that some day it would all make sense. I saw it as an exercise of my faith.
But I was still in a dilemma with my son. I still didn’t have any compelling answers to give him! In fact, it felt like I was finding more ammunition for his view! So I continued the journey, convinced that solid answers were just around the corner.
From here, the journey got even more interesting.
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*The gospel of Peter is believed to have been a fake; not written by Peter. It brings to light though that human deception had a place in the early Biblical writings.