Friday, June 27, 2008

Pascal's Wager

(Typically, in debate, I try to strike at my opponents' best arguments. It's more sporting, more productive, and gives the opponent a chance to show me why I'm wrong when I am. Here, I'm deviating from that, and picking off one of the weaker arguments.)

Pascal's wager: When one is making a wager, or a decision where the outcome is unknown, one should seek to maximize the expected value, that is, the average outcome. The probability that Christianity is true is greater than zero, and the benefit gained by believing if it happens to be true is infinite, thus the expected benefit from believing is infinite. Meanwhile, the effort necessary to be a Christian is finite. Therefore, as the price of the wager is finite and the expected benefit is infinite, to wager on believe would be wise.

(This is also the argument implicit in “but what if you're wrong and you die?”)

The first problem with this argument is that belief is not just a choice. If you offered me billions of dollars to believe Columbus discovered America in 1493, I wouldn't take it simply because I couldn't. I don't see any damage in the belief, and I don't know of a single reason to disbelieve, although I'm sure historians have their reasons. But right or wrong, I think I know the answer and an act of the will cannot change this.

Pascal himself recognized this problem, which is why Pascal offered this not as a reason to believe, but as a reason someone should seek to believe by taking Mass and associating themselves with Christians in the hope that they would come to believe. (This is a wager that I have already taken and it didn't work out so well...)

My answer is a counter wager: Suppose that God is a God who is intentionally hiding himself from us, and cares little about what we believe about his existence. Suppose he has given us reason and a basic sense of decency because they are to be our guide, and he just wants us to do the best we can with what little we know. What if God excludes from heaven those people who are claiming they know him, that he talks to them, that they are reading books that he wrote, and are seeking to convince others of this? What if God rewards people who admit they don't know if they will be rewarded, yet seek to live a good life anyway. While I am not exactly stating the tenants of my (lack of) belief, I am describing a God that makes more sense of the world I see than the version of God I see either in the Bible or taught by Christianity. Wagering on the Christian God takes more effort than wagering on this version of God, and some form of the latter seems more plausible to me. Therefore, the better wager is to seek a good life apart from God.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Which Resurrection Account?

When someone tells me that they believe based on the testimonies of the Gospel writers, my question is “Which one? When they contradict, how do you decide what to believe?”

The apologetic rebuttal to Gospel contradictions is that is actually adds to the credibility of the stories, in that it shows that they didn't conspire together to lie. Honest testimonies from different perspectives will often contradict due to imperfections in observations and memory. While I agree with the argument in principle, the question simply becomes to determine what level of contradiction is present – a low level supports the stories' honesty, a high level discredits the stories' accuracy. For this reason, I will be disregarding the minor contradictions and focusing on the big ones.

One point that is import is that Mark 16:9-20 is not part of the original. Conservative theologians agree with this, otherwise I would feel the need to defend this claim.

The Empty Tomb:

In Mark, the women come to the tomb where a young man tells them Jesus is risen. They tell no one (Mark 16:8) – this detail clashes badly with all three other Gospel accounts. How did the disciples hear about the Resurrection? The testimony of the women is only relevant if we know what their story was.

(I have since backed away from this argument.)

In Matthew, the women come to the tomb and speak to an angel on the stone (28:5). Here, the women follow instructions and tell the disciples (28:11).

In Luke, the women report to the disciples (24:9 - note Peter in particular) that they have seen the Resurrected Jesus. This again clashes with Mark 16:8, but it gets far worse when we look at John.

In John, a highly upset Mary Magdalene tells Peter and John that Jesus' body has been stolen. This is not to be confused with Luke 24:9 when all the disciples were present and the news was incredibly good rather than upsetting. Peter and John find Jesus' tomb on their own (20:8). The Mary tells the rest of the disciples. Surely this time much line up with Luke 24:9. But in Luke, they don't believe her, so Peter leaves to check it out for himself (Luke 24:12). In John, Peter has already been to the tomb, because he saw the tomb before Mary sees Jesus (John 20:11). Therefore, either Luke 24:10-12 is fictional, or the classic Sunday School story of “they have taken away my Lord” never happened.

Location of Appearances:

In Matthew, both the angel (28:7) and Jesus (28:10) tell them to tell the disciple specifically to go to Galilee, just as in Mark 16:7. In Luke, the angels remind them that while Jesus was in Galilee, he told them he would be Resurrected (24:6-7). Now, if you're not paying close attention, you just missed like I missed it the first hundred times I heard the story. In Matthew and Mark, the young man/angel/Jesus tell the disciple to go to Galilee, while in Luke, Jesus told them something while he was in Galilee.

Remembering what was said exactly is not that big of a deal. (It's a good rebuttal to the reasons to believe the story as a decent part of the testimony is what was said, but it's not a reason to disbelieve.) The big deal is that Matthew, Luke, and John's Resurrection appearances need these words to be as they appear in each book. In Matthew, Jesus is seen in Galilee, which is fifty miles away from Jerusalem, while in Luke, Jesus is seen in and around Jerusalem.

So did Jesus tell the Marys to tell the disciples to go the Galilee? Notice how wrong one story must be. Matthew repeats the instructions twice and Mark once – if they're wrong, then the accounts of the “young man”, the sighting of an angel, and the sighting of Jesus contain only words that were not actually spoken. If Luke is wrong, then he changed the words of the risen Jesus to make his story flow.

The Story Grows:

The order of writing was Mark, Matthew, Luke, then John. In Mark, there are no Resurrection or angelic appearances, save for the passage which is known to have been added. In Matthew, there is one, in Luke there is three, and in John there are three with far more details.

The Role of Women:

Also, as time goes on, the role of women is demoted. Now, as apologist tell us, women's testimony was not considered to be reliable at this time. The reason apologists tell us this is that the best reason for the Gospel writers to have for including women if it was true. I agree to a point – the Gospel writers didn't make up the stories, but rather used stories that they were circulating. But the testimony of the women is the part of the Resurrection accounts that differ the most sharply, so it's hardly the place to look for strength.

Also, consider the evolution of the stories with time: In Mark, women's testimony is 100% of the evidence. In Matthew, this is thinned out a bit as men see Jesus as well. In Luke, Peter makes it to the tomb himself at the prodding of Mary. In John, Peter and John make it to the tomb before Mary finds out herself. Seen in the light of “women are talebearers,” the story is growing and shows evidence of changing.

Other Details:

Is it not odd that Mark only records Mary talking to a “young man?” A harmonization would require Mary to have spoken to both angels and Jesus himself, yet Mark only bothers to record her conversation with an angel while somehow failing to mention that it was an angel. This falls short of a contradiction, but also short of believable narratives.

Luke and Matthew end the story with Jesus speaking pretty much the same words (Act 1:8 & Matthew 28:18-20). The problem is that they are fifty miles apart. While it is true that Matthew's account does not absolutely end through Jesus' ascension, if we begin by reading the Gospels like any other historical document, the best explanation is that the story was changed. My guess is that first Matthew wrote his book, then Luke wrote his book. Next Luke read Matthew, or heard about the Matt. 28:18-20 story and wanted it in his books, so it gets added at the beginning of Luke's next book. But Luke already has Jesus in Jerusalem, so he changes the location. (Also, the story gets bigger when Jesus rises into heaven.) (Refuted by Claire)


The contortions an apologist must go through to defend the Gospels' reliability are greater than what must be supposed to conclude that many or all of the alleged sightings of Jesus didn't ever occur, and the remainder were whatever it is that all other religions and cults are based on. Once one fully understands why they don't take seriously the miracle stories of any other religion, they will understand my hesitancy to believe the Bible's contradictory accounts of the extraordinary.

It is easier for me to make sense of how an explosive religion could start without the Resurrection than it was for me as a cessationist to make sense of sincere Pentecostals. There are options other than someone is tell the truth, telling a lie, or is insane. Sometimes people are just wrong.

If I place the ideas that the testimonies are/aren't reliable on a 50/50 level, the contradictions point to unreliability. This does not even employ an anti-supernatural bias and overlooks the fact that Christianity has the burden of proof, or at the very least, the burden of evidence.

Even the Biblical accounts give poor evidence for the Resurrection. If Christianity has a strong point, this should have been it. In my case, it was these arguments in particular that broke the camel's back. I became an evidentialist three years ago because I saw the flaws of presuppositionalism. But now I saw that many are presuppositionalists because they see the flaws in an evidential approach.

Now I was neither one.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Matthew vs. The Old Testament

One defense of Christianity is that it spread even in an environment that was ignorant to Old Testament prophecy.

I will argue that ignorance of the Old Testament makes one more open to Christianity. Of course, I'm not making a universal statement, and I'm not claiming the converse that Christians are ignorant of the OT. I'm evaluating the strength of the case made in the NT that the OT predicted Jesus' life and concluding that it is so bad, that the NT would be more likely to cause someone to accept Jesus if they had never read the OT.

Matt. 1:1-17 (genealogies)

Matthew's genealogies contain gaps when compared to the OT. The apologists answer is that Matthew was being loose with “father of” (compare to “Jesus son of David”) but was instead going for something numerological with the 14-14-14 pattern. That's reasonable so far. But when you count the names, you get 41, not 42 = 14 +14 + 14. And it's not a matter of counting grandfather-father-son as two or three generations – this alternate method of counting would give 40. When the genealogies are supposedly fixed around a numerological point, having the wrong number is quite an error. That's even an embarrassing mistake for a book written by a person without the Holy Spirit.

If you've never read the OT, I Chronicles 3:11-12 in particular, no explanation is needed. “Joram the father of Uzziah;” how complicated could it be? The idea that Matthew is neither inspired, nor particularly good, is a conclusion more true to the text than the one offered by apologists.

I learned about this a couple years ago. Less than a month after, Matthew 1 came up in a missions class I was taking called Perspectives. The missionary was talking about how different cultures view the Bible differently. There was one tribe with which the missionaries were getting nowhere for quite a while. Then one day he read the genealogies of Matthew to the natives. Their reaction was something like, “What? You mean they kept track of every single ancestor for all that time? Jesus was real!” And so the entire tribe converted.

While most of the room was no doubt praising the wisdom of the Holy Spirit for writing the Bible in such a way that all nations could come to believe, my thoughts were far different. What would I do if I was that missionary? Would I tell them that we know for certain that names are missing, and “father of” doesn't really mean “father of”? How long would I wait to translate I Chronicles? My emotions won the day, so I praised God and tried not to think. Emotions fade, but reasons never go away.

Matt. 1:23 “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL," which translated means, "GOD WITH US.” (BibleGateway's NASB uses all caps for OT quotation – that's not me shouting.)

is quoting

Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”

Picky details: when did Mary, or anyone else, call his name Immanuel? Half the prophecy only happens in quotation of the prophecy. The other half, that the mother will be a virgin, is unclear in Isaiah.

More relevant details: Isaiah 7:16 makes it clear that it's supposed to be fulfilled in the time of Isaiah's listeners. “For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.” As the king of Israel and the king of Assyria were dreaded by Judah, it is quite clear that Isaiah 7 is talking about kings in the present, thus events in the not-too-distant future.

Matt. 2:5-6 “They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:

is (mis)quoting

Micah 5:2 “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel”

In Micah, it looks like Bethlehem Ephrathah (not to be confused with Bethlehem) is a clan, not a town. Also, it does not say “Messiah,” but “ruler.” What will this ruler do? Micah 5:5-6 answers this question; he will defeat the Assyrians. If Micah 5 is Messianic, it's hard to blame the Jews for expecting the Messiah to be a military leader.

This problem is a double problem (although the second is only a problem if the first is as well.) According to Matthew, when the chief priests and scribes were asked where the King of the Jews would be born, they answered Bethlehem. Thus, Matthew claims that not only can we see the prophecy of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem when looking back, but we can also see it looking forward. We have copies of Micah, so we know that it could not have been seen looking forward. This not only means Matthew misused Micah, but it also means that the story of the magi looks fictitious for purely biblical reasons, or at least the detail about how they found out that Bethlehem was the destination.

Matt. 2:15 “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON."”

is quoting Hosea 11:1, which is talking about Israel's escape from Egypt.

Matt. 2:17-18 “Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:

is quoting Jeremiah 31:15, which is describing events that Jeremiah saw.

Matt. 2:23 “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: "He shall be called a Nazarene."”

Where? Remember that the point I'm arguing is not merely that the NT is wrong, but also that the NT's case that the OT foresaw the NT is strongest when viewed by someone who hasn't read the OT.

Matt 8:17 “[Jesus' healing of the sick] was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: "HE HIMSELF TOOK OUR INFIRMITIES AND CARRIED AWAY OUR DISEASES."”

is quoting

Isaiah 53:4's: “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried;”

Isaiah 53:4 says he is suffering for us, while Matthew's paraphrase sounds like Jesus is taking away the suffering and no one is suffering in our place. Had Matthew argued that Isaiah 53 foresaw the NT's theology of the significance of the crucification, he would have had a better case. Matthew did not make this case.


misquotes Psalm 78:2 “I will utter dark sayings of old.” Matthew sounds like new revelation, while Psalms sounds like repetition of things known for a long time.

The people who should be most moved by the elucidation of prophecy are the people most familiar with the OT prophecy, the Jews. The Jew mostly reject the NT then and now. Looking at the arguments made by Matthew, it is easy to see why. The people most likely to be convinced by Matthew's claims of prophecy are the people who don't bother to look up the OT verses, and just take Matthew's word for it.

Here, I have heard a couple different Christian answers. Matthew was using either Midrash or Pesher (I don't remember which), a contemporary hermeneutic, and thus Matthew should be interpreted as the original audience would have in light of this hermeneutic. This doesn't answer the objection at all. That's like saying that parts of the Bible were written at a time when people didn't care what was true, thus parts of the Bible express an indifference to the truth. It certainly explains why the Bible looks like a work of man, but it doesn't explain how God fits in. Meanwhile, the alternative view that the Bible is a work of man that is not terribly good is quite consistent with what I see.

The other answer is that the OT was making dual prophecies, or prophecies in situations where the original author didn't know he was prophesying. But should not words be taken to mean what the speaker intended when the intent is clear? Also, the explanation just does not make sense when you look back at what the prophecies actually said. The clearest problem is in Isaiah 7:14-16. The prophecies is not just vague words that fits around multiple situations. They are clear, and clearly not about Jesus. “Two meanings” is a cop-out for not liking the one clear meaning. They could be less clear and still sufficiently clear to be valid proof-texts for major pieces of doctrine.

Jesus' False Prophecies

Perhaps my biggest objection is the false prophecies of Jesus. It's not necessarily the hardest to answer, but if correct, it strikes a death blow to all versions of Christianity, and provides an alternate answer to "who was Jesus."

One of the primary themes of Jesus' words, and much of the NT, is the coming of the Kingdom of God. Prophecies about the Holy Spirit, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the end of the world are all woven together seamlessly. At least that's what I'm told, when I look at what Jesus said in the Bible, what I see is that Jesus prophesied the end of the world in the first century.

In Matt. 24:34, Jesus says “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (NASB) The question is what “all these things” are. He's just finished giving a description of his post-tribulation return in 24:29-31, and the signs that he is “near” in v. 32-33. Immediately after Jesus statement in v. 34, he talks about heaven and earth passing away. Jesus talked about Jerusalem in chapter 23, and ambiguously so at the beginning on 24, but nothing around 24:34 happened before this generation passed away. I think the meaning is clear, Jesus thought the world was going to end “soon” in the ordinary sense of the word, and he was wrong. This is repeated in Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32 in the same context.

Matt. 26:64 is not as obvious, but “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” isn't all that cryptic. Jesus was saying that Caiaphas would see his coming and his kingdom. But he didn't. This is repeated in Mark 14:62.

Mark 9:1: “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” The context of this verse is right before the transfiguration. While it is debatable if Peter, James, and John saw the kingdom of God, undoubtedly it was before it came with power. I don't know how many different things the coming of the kingdom of God are speculated to mean, but surely it means something at least after Jesus' death.

There are plenty of other hints as well. The parables of the ten virgins and the talents suggest that living until Jesus' return will be normal, rather than unusual. No one knows the "day or hour" has a very different implication than "millennium or century.”

These verses are all coming from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which were written while “this generation” was mostly alive. But John was written later when most or all of “this generation” had died and accepted that Jesus wasn't coming soon. Rather than going back and clarifying confusing predictions in the early Gospels, John just leaves out these implicating words.

I don't even see a way to liberal my way around this. If Jesus made false prophecies, or if the Gospel writers put words in his mouth, then a religion should not be based on Jesus or the Bible.

The rest of the NT talks about Jesus returning “quickly” as well.

In Acts 2:17, Peter applies a prophecy concerning the “last days” to the first century, and feels no need to qualify it as an initial outpouring of what would come primarily later.

Even well-known verses like I Thess. 4:17 “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord” suggest a first century rapture. “We who are alive” suggests that “we” includes people being addressed. This isn't an issue when viewing the Bible as written by God to us, but it is an issue when viewing the Bible as inspired by God and using the historical process. How would the original audience understand it? Some of them, literally, would be live to see the rapture. The first century church would agree with this, as they did expect Jesus' return to be soon.

By the time II Peter 3:8's “a day is like a thousand years”, was written, Peter felt the need to explain why Jesus wasn't returning “quickly.” At face value, 3:8-9 are an attempt to rationalize the correctness of a false prophecy. And then in 3:16, he slams people who distort Paul's words as “ignorant” and “unstable.” If these words appeared in a newspaper, could you read them without snickering at the bias? I wonder if these people taught that Paul taught that Jesus was coming soon. Early Christians burned heretical material, so we'll never know what was said by skeptics who lived at the time of Jesus.

Where this leaves me is thinking that first century Christianity was based on the false hope of Jesus returning soon, literally. His non-return phased them little, just as false prophesies haven't stopped modern cults. This conclusion can be reached without even being skeptical about the existence of God or the plausibility of miracles.


I left Christianity because I became convinced that it isn't true. This was not due to one particular argument, but due to the cumulative case of seeing more and more things that are wrong with the Bible, theology, apologetics, and Christians themselves. I struggled against this conclusion for as long as I could. To change my mind, apologetics did not have to lose an argument or two, it had to collapse on all fronts.

There is no concise way for me to describe my what sort of Christian I was, simply because I have changed so much in the process, although it's important I do so just so that it is apparent what I am rejecting.

Growing up, I was a somewhat typical fundamentalist: Biblical inerrancy, hard cessationist, premillenial, young-earth creation, a blend of presuppositional and evidential apologetics, and Armenian plus perseverance of the saints. When I left for college, I was "panmillenial," and soft cessationist. Freshman year, I opened to Calvinism, but couldn't quite accept the single/double predestination distinction. Sophomore year, I was beginning to see the flaws in the Bible, and rejected presuppositional apologetics as it has no way to absorb problems of any kind. During my junior year, I accepted evolution. By my senior year, I definitely did not accept inerrancy of the Bible, although I was trying to hold onto infallibility. I was "emerging," but largely because emergers are more able to recognize the problems in Christianity and still believe for some reason. By the time I graduated, I was well aware of the fact that I was consistently believing less things, and was quite scared by it. Following the trajectory of my thoughts, I saw agnosticism.

In Fall 2007, I made a conscience effort to be more conservative, not because I saw reasons to think what they believe is correct, but just because I thought I should. I started attending a fundamentalist church just hoping it would balance me out. It did make me feel better for a while, but it didn't answer any of the objections I had. One of my heroes was Mother Theresa, for her ability to persevere for so long while being tormented by doubt.

While I had suspected I was losing my faith off and on for over three years, I didn't think there was a chance I actually would, even up until the moment it happened. I sincerely believed it was true, and thus I believe that sincerely seeking the truth would lead me to God in some way. When it happened, I could best describe it as the final scene in a mystery movie, where the detective has been following the bad guy for a while, and finds the smallest clue out of place. A montage follows as he remembers the dozens of times something was amiss, and one-by-one, puts the clues in the proper position and sees he has enough evidence to convict the real villain several times over. After I deconverted in April, my first thought was simply:

“Wow ... What took me so long?”

***Added June 29***

I think I sold my Christian upbringing short here - I was setting the context for the discussion more than introducing myself. "Faith without works is dead" is a concept that I was taught to both know and live.

I could have written about being an AWANA leader '03-07, the peace and encouragement I felt through worship music, times I thought God was speaking to me. When I studied Calvinism as a freshman, I walked away with no intellectual conclusion, but I felt encouraged by the study because my approach had been "Lord, I want to know you." Topics such as these will make it up eventually.

I listed theological issues because they are directly relevant to the first several posts, in that they describe what I see as the primary Christian alternatives to my skeptical arguments. Inerrancy/inspiration goes with "Matthew and the OT." Pre-millenniallism goes with "Jesus' False Prophecies." Presuppositional/evidential apologetics goes with "Which Resurrection Account?" Calvinism will be relevant to planned posts on the Moral Argument for God and the Problem of Pain.