Response to Heather Tomlinson’s critique of Why I Believed, Part 2

Following is part 2 of my two-part response response to Heather Tomlinson’s meaty critique of my book, Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary. See Part 1 here.

In each of the quotations below, Heather offers her thoughts as to why I might have left the faith. I in turn interleave my perspectives with hers:

He describes not being exposed to secular or atheistic ways of thinking until adulthood, and feeling afraid of reading non-evangelical authors or having his fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity questioned. Obviously, this does not help someone to really explore what they believe and why. Someone who comes from a non-Christian background such as myself, will have had exposure to all these things, and analysed them without ‘fear’. Though I think it would be better for a child to be brought up in the Christian faith, clearly there can be a downside, if they do not encounter the problems that ‘outsiders’ have with the faith, and so consider such ‘doubts’ to be more significant than they really are.

When it comes down to it, this is a suggestion that my eternal soul might have been spared had I opted for better parents, ones who weren’t afraid to inoculate me with some challenges to the faith in my formative years. I was never tested and was brittle, snapping in the face of the slightest breeze of adolescent doubt. Can you not feel the condescension inherent in this tack? Poor Ken, he may end up as a casualty of his insular religious upbringing, but at least he can serve as a cautionary tale to parents who might otherwise err on the side of shielding their fragile offspring from secular thinking.

Have you performed a study that demonstrates a negative correlation between early insulation and apostasy? If so, is that correlation greater than that between openness and apostasy? When moderate evangelist Tony Campolo’s son Bart came out as a secular humanist, one of my fundamentalist friends posted on FaceBook his opinion that it was Tony’s “liberalism” that led to the apostasy of Bart. Conflicting armchair postmortem perspectives are easy to come by, but what do the data show?

Often he described being persuaded by a book, just by reading it – whether the author was Christian or atheist. This suggests to me that he tends to take things at face value and accept them, perhaps because of his fundamentalist roots? Though he has clearly thought a lot about the subjects – his childhood non-critical acceptance of what he is told does reveal itself in the adult Kenneth. Mind you, many atheists and Christians are also like this – we all have blind spots of some kind. Lack of critical thinking is as much a problem in atheism as it is in Christianity, and Kenneth displays a lot of rigid thinking.

We all have our cognitive weaknesses. I’d like to think I’ve grown into more of a critical thinker since my deconversion, not only in metaphyscial matters, but in various other arenas, including politics (finding much to critique on both the far right and the far left), news (no Fox or MSNBC for me), and health claims (I eschew alternative medicine and support science-based medicine). Was I unduly influenced by the latest book I read, Christian or nonChristian, during my deconversion process? Absolutely! It was like a gut-wrenching game of ping pong! But I still made the right decision in the end. Jesus promised to return within the lifetime of his followers but did not. If an alternative medicine salesperson promoted a product to cure cancer but it didn’t heal cancer more than a placebo, it would require a lack of critical thinking to purchase the product. I’ve certainly been guilty of lapses in critical thinking–I’m no longer under the sway of mythicist Robert Price, for example–but anyone who don’t see a problem with Jesus’ failed prophecy cannot cast the first stone.

He does not fully understand many of the Christian arguments for God. Eg, he is confused re the moral argument, as explained above. He also doesn’t engage with a lot of good Christian arguments for the existence of God, such as the argument from consciousness, and the excellent Christian challenges to atheistic naturalism, such as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

There are many moral arguments for God, for example, 1) the existence of altruism (for which it is claimed there can be no evolutionary explanation); 2) the lack of incentive naturalism provides for societies and individuals to behave; 3) the lack of grounding naturalism provides for defining how we even ought to behave; and 4) the inability of naturalism to explain why we feel a sense of moral outrage when people wrong us or others. There are no doubt others, but they mostly boil down to the questions, Why do we have a sense of (absolute) morality, and What will happen to society of we don’t have God to guide our behavior? The first of the latter two questions is the only one that bears on the truth of naturalism, as the truth of a proposition cannot be determined by the desirability of its consequences. Am I wrong about this?

I regret not having discussed the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). I had been exposed to it when reading Plantinga and Lewis, but apparently didn’t realize how popular it was when writing my book. Subsequently I’ve engaged in some long FaceBook conversations about this argument. In the interest of space, I’ll provide just a brief summary of how I process this argument. EAAN posits that, if we’re the product of natural evolutionary forces, what assurance can we have that our brains have sufficiently evolved to come to a correct conclusion regarding our origins and place in this world? Evolution is concerned with survival, not truth. My response: We can all agree that our brains have the ability to seek and find truth, or else we would not be so successful in modeling the outside world to the point where we can send people to the moon or send cat videos over our iPhones. We have our answer: We don’t have to wonder whether our brains are hopelessly incapable of finding truth, no matter how we got our brains. Are our brains perfect truth seekers? No, but they can and do find truth, given methods for truth-seeking that work and make successful predictions about our world. And when we apply these methods to our origins, we find we’ve evolved from other species of apes, etc. And why should it surprise us that evolution should select for brains that are better at modeling the truth than not, especially if survival can be enhanced via an ability to generate true maps about our environment? We can’t run like cheetahs or see like eagles or haul ourselves effortlessly through trees like other primates, but we have the feature that has led to our dominion of this planet: brains that can seek and apply truth better than any other species.

He says he had been brought up with the idea “Christian = good, non-Christian = bad”. This is so easy to refute (and begs questions of what is good, how can we label something Christian etc) that I’m not surprised he was confused.

Yes, this was a very binary way of expressing a sentiment I felt growing up, namely, that when there was a contrast between the way of Jesus (or the Bible) and the way of the world, the way of Jesus (or the Bible) was always the better way. Granted, I didn’t express this with much nuance in that short section of the book, but I was certainly in good company in seeing the contrast this way, and most of that company has remained in the faith. Why did I leave? Not because I perceived a positive contrast between Christianity and the world, most assuredly.

Regularly, he cites a potential alternative to the Christian viewpoint, as if it is a damning indictment. Perhaps again, this is a reaction to his upbringing, but to me such possibilities do not undermine my faith. Reasonable atheists and Christians acknowledge the strong points and weaknesses of their own and the other ‘side’ in terms of the rational debate. But I didn’t read Kenneth – once – acknowledging some of the very real problems with atheism and naturalism. He appears to find the unanswered questions or uncertainties of Christianity to be devastating for belief, yet doesn’t see the massive rational problems with his adopted worldview. Yet plenty of atheists are willing to acknowledge, along with Christians, that atheism has many difficulties intellectually.

As I expressed more than once in my book, I am more convinced that Christianity is untrue than I am that atheism is true. I passed through deism for a year on my way to secular humanism, and I would gladly revert to deism (or even Christianity) if I thought it had fewer problems than atheism. (For the record, at the risk of splitting hairs, I prefer the label secular humanist or atheist-leaning agnostic to atheist.) And I did not completely skate over all the problems of atheism. These excerpts show I did not naively embrace naturalism uncritically as you seem to suggest:

  • [A]theism could not account for the origin of the universe, life, or human consciousness and morality. In short, though Christianity had its difficulties, it was less difficult than the alternatives, all of which were fatally flawed. There was simply nothing better than Christianity.
  • The problem of explaining the complexity and beauty of nature without appealing to a superhuman intellect was the final barrier to my loss of faith. My confidence in the doctrines of Christianity had eroded well before I abandoned my belief in God.
  • Though I will not seek to make an extensive case against God’s existence, as a nontheist I feel an obligation to present at least an outline of a response to those who demand to know how I might account for the universe and life without God. Keep in mind that if my case remains unsatisfactory to my readers, this provides no particular warrant for the truth of Christianity or for any of the thousands of other supernatural worldviews on the market.
  • I must make a point of saying that no one—neither atheistic scientists nor creationists—has any conclusive evidence concerning how the universe and the first life form began. This being the case, we must hold lightly to our theistic or naturalistic hypotheses for these questions. I will present some of the naturalistic hypotheses currently in the playing field, but I am not lending my unequivocal “you’ll-be-damned-if-you-don’t believe” support to them.
  • How did matter, the natural laws, and the Big Bang all originate? How could something have come from nothing?[42] How is it that the physical laws and their constants are all precisely fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life? Scientists do not have a definitive answer to the question of how everything began (if indeed it ever began), nor do I. Some speculate that ours is not the only universe—there may be an infinite number of them—which may help explain why the natural laws in our particular universe happen to be conducive to life, but this simply pushes back the question one step further. How did whatever first began begin? When theists pose this question, atheists typically retort, “Well, how did God begin?” To which theists respond, “God is not a part of the physical world, but stands outside of it by definition, so the question is irrelevant.” The arguments can go on and on, but in the end, both positions seem to raise imponderable, insoluble questions. Atheists start with nature, and theists start with God—both accept some sort of foundational reality.I am, quite frankly, unable to fathom it all. In this respect I am like those of antiquity who pondered the foundation of the earth. The earth is solid; what does it rest on?
  • However uncomfortable it is for us to accept that there are things we simply do not know, we are on surer ground to admit our ignorance than to fill the vacuum with our imaginings or with tradition; we must not pretend we know that which we do not know. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors”
  • There are certainly many things I do not know and that I may never know, and though I am always driven to learn more, I have come to accept that I don’t have to know more than that which is knowable.

To whom do we listen, and why? It’s worth examining our motives and emotions about our choices of what we read and what we believe. On what basis are we evaluating something, and how have we chosen this criteria? And why? Kenneth said: “I came to my present perspective initially against my will, and I persevere in it only because it is genuinely where I believe the evidence leads.” This begs an awful lot of questions. What kind of evidence is he talking about? Why choose that kind of evidence? Isn’t that choice culturally constructed? On atheism and naturalism, how can we trust the cognitive reasoning of our brains in any case? And, is there any such thing as a ‘choice’ as the world has to be scientifically determined? And, the biggie… to the next point

What kind of evidence am I talking about? Jesus’ failed prediction about the timing of his return, for one. There are many others throughout the book. How can we trust the congnitive reasons of our brains on naturalism? See my response to the EAAN above. My impression is that that argument is just a “gotcha” trap, but the trap is toothless. There are much better arguments against naturalism, like the fine-tuning argument, the argument from consciousness, and the First Cause argument. The EAAN and the argument from morality are very weak in comparison, IMO.

There is often a blatant inconsistency by which atheists pick holes in arguments for theism or Christianity, yet ignore the holes of the atheistic arguments. This phenomenon is well articulated by David Wood in this talk: The Skeptic’s Dilemma. This summarises what I believe Kenneth does so often in his book.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Christianity and atheism are found to be untenable. Where does that leave us? Agnosticism, deism perhaps?

It’s interesting to read your perspective on my lack of criticism of atheism. I grant you have a point. Likewise, I recently read Holly Ordway’s Not God’s Type and kept thinking to myself, She’s articulated some problems with atheism and some arguments for Christianity, but it doesn’t seem she’s seriously explored the weaknesses of Christianity. We’re all prone to such biases, and I admit it for myself. Were I to write my book again, I would certainly discuss more of the problems with naturalism.

We are not just passive accepters of faith. Unless Calvinism is true (I don’t believe so), faith requires decisions of our own making.

He seems to have picked up quite a lot of rigid assumptions, such as ‘if the Bible is not inerrant, it is worthless’ and ‘if I feel uncertain or doubtful about one area of Christian belief, all other areas are in doubt too’. Having such absolute beliefs without any notion of a ‘middle way’ may not be helpful. I can testify to the fact that it is possible to be a passionate believer, holding to the basics of faith, while still being open-minded about certain issues. Our faith shouldn’t rest on whether or not it’s possible to prove that every piece of our theological system is infallible. Surely, it should rest on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ and His love and sacrifice for us.

No, I never indicated expressed that if the Bible is not inerrant, it’s worthless. Some excerpts:

  • On August 17, 2007, I watched Bill Moyer interview liberal University of Chicago theologian Martin Marty on PBS Television. What a gentle, gracious, humble man! I do not see eye to eye with him on many matters, but if every believer were like this man, what a wonderful world it would be!
  • I recognize that many moderate and liberal believers have thoughtfully considered the foundations of their views, in many cases more thoughtfully than fundamentalists and atheists have done. I do not doubt the sophistication, sincerity, and earnestness with which moderates forge a worldview that meets their spiritual needs, but in my own journey I have come to view moderation more as a means of holding onto as much as possible of what is hoped to be true than as a raw reckoning with what is true.
  • I have presented thus far a one-sided perspective of the Bible, stemming from my admitted objective of leading my readers closer to the conclusion I have become convinced of—that the Bible is not the product of divine inspiration; it is the product of human composition, just like all other books. But I am not so jaded that I cannot recognize beauty and wisdom wherever they are to be found, be it in the Bible or any other source. One of my favorite passages in all of literature is 1 Corinthians 13, even if I fall far short of its ideals. Would that I could learn to love my wife, my children, my friends and needy individuals the world over in this way! [Then I proceed to quote the entire chapter of 1 Cor. 13]
  • Who can fail to be inspired by Jesus’ call to love our neighbors as ourselves, to do to others what we would have them do to us, to forgive others, and to be generous to the needy? The Bible contains many pearls of wisdom and beauty, as do many other religious and secular writings throughout history, yet we are not obligated to consider them all as divinely inspired in order to appreciate them.

A significant factor preventing Kenneth from rejecting Christianity was the fear of hell if it was true, and the rejection of his family (though they have not rejected him). This reveals quite a legalistic ‘faith’, once again. This kind of fear-based adherence to God can’t be a good thing. Did he really, genuinely, know that God loves him, before his deconversion? It doesn’t sound like it, sadly.

Did Jonathan Edwards or George Whitfield or Martin Luther or John Wesley or Augustine take hell seriously and use its fear to nudge (or in some cases, bludgeon) their hearers to accept Jesus? Did they really know that God loved them? If you don’t believe in the hell that these leaders accepted, then you’ve come a long way, and you’re to be commended. But for those who adopt the view of a majority of Christians, hell is a problem. It was a problem for me.

Did I know that God loves me before my deconversion? This line of question merits a lengthy quotation from my book:

For many if not most evangelicals, a “personal relationship with Christ” is the primary shibboleth by which others’ inclusion in the Christian faith is evaluated. If you are a former evangelical, you have no doubt been confronted with the charge that you were never a true believer to begin with, by which it is meant you did not have this personal relationship with Jesus. Otherwise, given the benefits of this relationship, you could not possibly have turned your back on him, nor would God have let you go.

In an online forum discussing my journey away from faith, one participant provided this analysis of my situation:

There is a lesson here for Christians. Apparently this person [Ken] had head knowledge and not a personal relationship with Jesus. There are lots of people that are church goers but not really Christians. They may call themselves Christians because they go to a Christian church, but more likely they will identify themselves as Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, or other denomination rather than Christian. It is the personal relationship with the risen Christ that matters (2ndAmendment 2005).

As an aside, I predict that not long after the publication of this book, one of the most common responses will be, “This guy never had a personal relationship with Christ. He was a follower of Christianity (the religion) but not of Christ.” This conclusion will not be based on any real familiarity with my background but on a theological conviction that does not allow for the redeemed to be unredeemed. To illustrate this point, in 2004 I received a book entitled Don’t Waste Your Life (Piper 2004) from a Christian friend who wrote to me on the first page, “I believe you are still a brother in Christ.” After I read the book and responded indicating clearly where I stood, she wrote back and confessed she now believed I had never been a true Christian in the first place. What changed her assessment? Was it something new she learned about my life as believer?

No. It was a result of her preconceived theology, not an evaluation of the evidence.

It was entirely a result of her realization that I had indeed rejected Christ as the Son of God. In other words, her conclusion was based on her adherence to the theological doctrine that true believers cannot lose their faith, and not on any objective evaluation of my prior relationship with Christ. The upshot is that I could attempt to demonstrate the authenticity of my former faith until I am blue, but for many believers, my claims will fall on deaf ears—their theology bars any conclusion other than that I was only going through the motions and was a believer in name only.

I do not object to those who hold this doctrine, as long as they freely acknowledge that this and this alone is what is driving their conclusion that I was never a true believer. However, if they cannot let it rest at that, but insist on determining precisely what was deficient about my former relationship with Jesus, they are in danger of drawing successively smaller circles around the household of faith, to the point that they might find themselves nearly alone in their privileged circle. When they finally get to the bottom of what separates my former counterfeit faith from their bona fide faith, they are likely to have left out the vast majority of believers, including the most earnest of evangelicals and fundamentalists whose identity is built on their relationship with Jesus. Could it be that this circle-drawing tendency is driven by a fear of being vulnerable to apostasy? Perhaps such believers need the assurance that somethingdistinguishes their secure present faith from my insecure former faith so they can rest easy in the guarantee that they will persevere in their faith until death. They do not wish to acknowledge that someone who showed every indication of having experienced the same kind of rich, intimate relationship with Jesus as theirs could have given it up. No one in his right mind could even consider abandoning such a treasure for the empty philosophy of the world.

There is an unavoidable danger in considering oneself a member of an elite club that enjoys a “true” relationship with Jesus. It is a danger to which I sometimes—perhaps often—succumbed, despite my earnest desire to avoid it. To this day I vividly recall looking around at the other students in my high school chemistry lab, wondering how many of them were “practicing the presence of God” as I was doing—or thinking I was doing—at that moment. It was my desire to spend every waking moment of my day in communication with the Holy Spirit, thanking him for every blessing; praising him for his nature: asking him to show himself to my friends; seeking his indwelling in the furtherance of a life pleasing to him; and sharing with him every hope, frustration and longing of my life. As I engaged in this moment-by-moment tête-à-tête with God, it was difficult to suppress the thought that very few, if any, of those around me were similarly engaged in such a relationship. I was tempted to think that I was somehow a notch above the others. But as soon as that notion cropped up, I immediately recognized it was a diabolical thought that, left unchecked, would lead to runaway pride. I then asked God to grant me humility, whereupon I felt good about the way I had handled my incipient pride, which led to another opportunity for pride, and another opportunity for confession and a plea for humility, and so on without end. Many of my readers will identify with this kind of experience. I wish them the best in coming to terms with it, but it is a battle they will never stop fighting, so long as they consider that (a) the kind of relationship they have with Jesus to be the mark of a true believer and that (b) this kind of relationship remains relatively rare in the world at large, and even in the wider church.

I think back on a night during my high school years when I lay in bed, conversing with God about my Mormon friend, confessing my struggles over the whole “enterprise” of religion. As I continued pouring out my heart to God, I started experiencing the most wonderful sense of peace, slowly at first, but then working up to a flood of emotion rushing through my soul for what seemed like an hour. I was as certain as I could be certain of anything that God was invading my life, assuring me of his presence and favor. The experience was so real and so exhilarating that I vowed I would never doubt God’s ways again. This, alas, was not to be.

Few evangelicals conclude that a Hindu or a humanist who becomes a Christian was never a “true Hindu” or a “true humanist” in the first place. Christians generally welcome the news when true members of other worldviews convert to Christ, but they (especially Calvinists) often cannot acknowledge that true members of the Christian faith abandon it.


Very early on in his doubting, he said he didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God. In fact, I noticed a surprising lack of discussion about Jesus – the book was much more about the religious trappings of the faith. Did he actually know and love Jesus, before he lost his faith? I suspect he would say yes, but the lack of mention does intrigue me. If he had a more Christ-centred hermeneutic to his Bible reading, would this help him to know God?

I count 343 references to Jesus in my book, nine references to “Relationship with Jesus”,  How many more would have satisfied you? Here’s one excerpt:

  • Unlike skepticism or naturalism, Christian faith is not simply an assent to propositional truths; it is a commitment to the person of Jesus. The New Testament paints Jesus as the groom and the church as the bride. This commitment is even weightier than an earthly marriage vow “’till death do us part”; marriage to Jesus is for all eternity.

Heather, I again thank you for taking the time to engage with my book. I respect your journey and your serious quest for truth. Though I don’t share your conclusions, I feel the world would be a better place if everyone gave as much thoughts to their beliefs as you do.


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Response to Heather Tomlinson’s critique of Why I Believed, Part 1

In January 2016, blogger/author Heather Tomlinson posted a meaty critique of my book, one which I felt merited a response. Below is Part 1 of my response:

Thank you, Heather, for taking significant time to read and interact with my book. Yours has been be the most thorough and thoughtful I’ve received so far from Christian perspective.

I’ll include excerpts from your review in bold/italic font, followed by my responses.

Though he says at various points that he is not trying to persuade believers to doubt, this doesn’t tally with his rather sinister invitation at the end of the book: “Consider taking a swim in the waters of unbelief. You won’t be struck by lightening…”

This is a fair criticism; I was indeed inconsistent in stating at one point that it wasn’t my goal to make atheists out of my readers and then later encouraging them to try taking a swim in the waters of unbelief. Perhaps I can clarify my intent with some direct snippets from my book:

• my aim is to ask my readers to reconsider at least a few of their convictions

• Incidentally, arguing for atheism is not the focus of this book. If I can convince some of my readers to relax their hold on fundamentalist Christianity in favor of some form of simple theism, deism or agnosticism, or even a more moderate form of Christianity, I will not consider my effort to be in vain.

• As I mentioned earlier, my focus in writing this book is not to convince my readers to become atheists. Though I presently do not believe the evidence warrants belief in God, I am far more open to the possibility of God’s existence than I am to the idea that the Almighty inspired the collection of books known as the Bible or that God displaced his wrath for us by sovereignly orchestrating the murder of his god-man son Jesus. It is not simply a small step between accepting God’s existence and embracing the tenets of a conservative Christian faith; a gaping canyon remains between the two.

• Though I will not seek to make an extensive case against God’s existence, as a nontheist I feel an obligation to present at least an outline of a response to those who demand to know how I might account for the universe and life without God. Keep in mind that if my case remains unsatisfactory to my readers, this provides no particular warrant for the truth of Christianity or for any of the thousands of other supernatural worldviews on the market.

• Most believers are not prepared to travel as far as I have from my former position as a fundamentalist believer. I implore such readers to consider a middle ground, one that acknowledges both the virtues and vices of the scriptures, as millions of moderate and liberal believers already do. While it is unrealistic to expect a large percentage of Muslims to abandon their faith, most of us can agree that the world would be a better place if Muslim fundamentalists moderated their rigid commitment to every precept of the Qur’an as the divine word of Allah, especially those that call for the destruction of infidels and apostates. Likewise, the world would be a better place if fundamentalist Christians could frankly acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly in their own scriptural tradition, whether or not they end up abandoning their faith outright.

• If you have reservations about your faith but lack confidence to act on your doubts, I would encourage you to start by placing your toe in what from the outside looks like an icy pool of disbelief…. As your entire foot enters the water, followed by your legs, consider taking a little swim in the waters of unbelief. You won’t be struck by lightning (or, at least your chances will be no greater than for anyone else), and, if your experience is like mine, you’ll find nothing—from sunrise to sundown, from sundown to sunup, from north to south and east to west, from the past to the present—nothing that will invalidate your new perspective that the Christian god resides only in the imagination of those who accept him.

In retrospect, I would have done better to omit the invitation to test the waters of unbelief, given my multiple assurances that it wasn’t my aim to make atheists out of my readers. Yet note that my “pool” invitation was made only to those already having reservations about their faith, and it was a call to test their faith incrementally and see where the process leads. If it stops at a less fundamentalist version of Christianity, I would see that as a positive development, even if it doesn’t lead them all the way to my irreligion. I do not view this as a sinister invitation, though I can understand how you might view it as such, given Jesus’ millstone warnings against those who would lead believers astray.

But, bottom line, you did catch me in an inconsistency, and I do acknowledge and regret it.

I’d like to respond to a few statements in your review that could be misconstrued by your readers to paint a subtly inaccurate view of my story:

[Kenneth] began to have doubts while at university, which did not go away. Not an unusual story, as university is where we start to think independently from our parents.

True enough, though I should clarify that the school I attended, LeTourneau University, is a thoroughgoing evangelical institution. Also, it was nothing in the courses I took that precipitated my doubts; instead, it was in my private daily devotional reading of the Old Testament that my questions about the Bible began.

It’s worth pointing out that his doubts existed before he went to Wycliffe

True, I did have a bout or two of doubt in my college years up to around 1990, but I did seek counsel and was able to keep those doubts at bay until 1999. Nine years was a significant period, during which I attended evangelical seminary in 1991-92, married a believing wife in 1992 (we’ve now been happily married 26+ years), and joined Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1993, started language school in Europe in 1995, began work in Africa in 1997, and had three babies. For whatever it’s worth, I wanted to clarify to your readers that these intervening years should not be overlooked.

[H]e claims throughout the book that he didn’t want to lose his faith

The use of the word “claims” suggests I was perhaps a bit disingenuous in stating that I didn’t want to lose my faith. What was your reason for using the word “claims” here? Certainly, after I concluded that my prior faith was misplaced, I did proceed to set aside my faith and to defend that move, but it wasn’t as if I woke up one day and said to myself, “Ken I don’t like my faith; I want to lose it.” No, in the words of Lewis, I lost my faith “kicking and screaming.” Would you appreciate it if I wrote about Lewis, “He claims he didn’t want to give up his atheism, but look at the way he argues against atheism in his writings.”

I do not see this careful ‘weighing’ in his book

What is the purpose of placing ‘weighing’ within quotes? Was it not enough to state your view plainly that I did not weigh the evidence carefully; did you also need to compound your accusation with the use of quotes?

He seems to me, to be trying to convince himself that God’s not real

See my discussion of the words “claims” and “weighing” above; the same applies here.

I think this is a good prayer to pray. But was it honest? What choices did he make along the way that reflect his heart in the matter?

By asking the question, “But was it honest?” it feels as though you are impugning my integrity, much as in your use of the words “claims” and “weighing” above. Is this necessary? Do you know my heart better than I do? The following excerpt from the “Focus on the flaws of the foes of the faith” section my book anticipated this tack:

“The bottom line is this: those whose beliefs are nonnegotiable will do whatever it takes to discredit those who challenge the Christian faith. Whatever it takes. Often the easiest way to do this is to impugn their character—they are arrogant, self-absorbed, immoral, willfully self-deceived, or unscrupulous. Focusing on the character of one’s opponents is especially effective for those whose theology holds that God will eternally judge nonbelievers.”


He also appears to be arguing against a particular kind of Christianity – fundamentalist, creationist etc – rather than the Christianity that I know, which is evangelical, but thoughtful and open.

Somewhat surprisingly, this seems to have been the most common criticism I’ve received from Christian readers of my book. And in not one of these cases does the critic acknowledge my section entitled “Moderation Inoculation,” where I anticipate and respond to this criticism.

For more on how I see this sort of criticism, here’s an excerpt of a related post from my now-dormant blog site:

[S]ince the time my doubts about Christianity came to a head, I have been confronted more times that I can count by well-meaning individuals who have said, “If you only had subscribed to this version (invariably meaning the version held to by the one confronting me) of Christianity, you might not have gone down this path.” I’ve been told my former evangelical faith was not conservative enough or not Calvinistic enough, but more often I’ve been told my former faith was too fundamentalistic and that it would have endured if it had been more flexible, more broad, less legalistic. Well, I’m sorry, but I didn’t have a say in the religious background in which I grew up, nor has anyone really. When I hear these post-mortem assessments, they come across as a more than a bit condescending: “Well, well, you were like a protected tree that grew up in a climate-controlled greenhouse supported with a lattice of pre-packaged answers, but when you were let out into the big bad world, the first hailstorm pummeled your tender, flaccid twigs and chewed you up. Pity, really.” Or from a Calvinist, “Well, you never grasped or embraced the sovereignty of God.” Or from a Pentecostal, “Well, you never drank in the power of the Spirit.” Or from a peitistic evangelical, “Well, you never experienced a genuine personal relationship with Jesus” (even though there’s no discernable difference between my experience and theirs). Or from a Catholic, “Did you really ever experience traces of grace?”


Why does this [evidence for evolution] make anyone doubt the existence of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God and died for us? Why does that lead one to think that the material world is all there is? … I’m at a loss to understand how this [evidence for evolution] could have damaged his faith, it just doesn’t seem logical to me…. I came to faith with the presumption that evolution was entirely true – it didn’t stop me believing in Christ.

You’re right: Evidence for evolution in itself shouldn’t cause anyone to lose their faith wholesale. As you know, I’m an American, and most American evangelicals (unlike British evangelicals) reject evolution, almost or even actually as a nonnegotiable. I didn’t have a say into which culture I was born, nor am I a cyborg perfectly immune from its effects, so evolution inevitably caused some cognitive dissonance. Would I have responded in the same way if I had been exposed to Francis Collins’ “The Language of God”, which offers a compelling case for evolution from an evangelical perspective? It’s hard to say.

To correct the implication in your question, I continued believing in God without reserve for at least a year after I accepted the reality of biological evolution in 2000.

For more context, this 1999 doubting episode lasted for only about a month. I sought counsel from a respected professor with Wycliffe Bible Translators and was able to allay further deep doubts for about another year until I left Christianity (but not my belief in God) in 2000. The 1999 episode was accompanied by remembrances of doubts about the Bible from nine years.

In the section of my book entitled “From deism to agnosticism” (which I encourage your audience to read in full, as it dispels the simple notion that a whiff of evolution was all it took to bring down the entirety of my faith), I expressed that I didn’t consider theism to be incompatible with evolution:

“Though I never saw theism and naturalistic science as mutually exclusive, the more I reflected on the nature of evolution, the more troubled I became about its theological implications.[16]”

“[16] Though most of my fundamentalist and conservative evangelical readers may (as I did) see evolution as being somewhat at odds with their faith, moderate readers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Here is how my thinking proceeded:

Creationism *may* be true with or without phenomenon x, but without phenomenon x, evolution could *not* have happened. For example, creationism may be true whether the earth is young or old, but without an old earth, large-scale evolution would be impossible. Or creationism may be true if apparent homologies like five-fingered whales and five-fingered land mammals exist, but evolution would be untenable if there were no apparent homologies in nature. When enough of these phenomena built up in my mind, the scales began to tip in favor of evolution. I was especially concerned that to continue clinging to special creation in the face of these phenomena that supported evolution was to attribute deception to God, which I could not entertain. I then applied this same line of reasoning to the truth of Christianity and later to the existence of God. Though theism *may* be true with or without evolution, naturalism *cannot* hold without evolution (or something like it).”

I’ll now respond to the clangers you called out in my book:

Clanger 1: [Morality]

I suppose we simply disagree on this. Ideas and practices that are bad for the greater number or that inflict greater suffering than benefits (communism, Nazism, theocracies, cannibalism, murder, slavery, etc.), though they may have a long reign, have been progressively recognized as harmful by the world at large (both by the religious and the irreligious) and are now marginalized, even if they do continue to crop up. Much could be debated about why things are getting better, but most measures of societal health and well-being (per-capita rates of war deaths, homicides, poverty, education, longevity, infant mortality, happiness, etc.), the world is better off than it was decades, centuries, and millennia ago. Many books have been written on these trends, the most recent of which I’m aware of is Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling.

I’m aware of the problem of establishing absolute morality under naturalism. I don’t believe absolute morality exists in the way Christians often use the term. But that doesn’t prevent any of us from encouraging and aspiring to behaviors that benefit others, nor does it prevent us from condemning actions that harm others. This is especially true if we want to live in a world in which a random individual (like me) is more likely to be helped than hurt by others. I cannot ask others to behave responsibly if I egregiously fail to do so myself. But will everyone else play the same game? No, but we can agree to make laws and praise people who play the game and critique those who don’t. Does this solve all problems for a naturalist morality? No, but that fact doesn’t bear on the question of whether naturalism is true.

Clanger 2: [Prophecy]

(Incidental point: You consider it a clanger that I recommended a two-hundred-year-old book, yet you did not offer a rejoinder to the contents of the book itself. That strikes me as a case of what C.S. termed “chronological snobbery.” Was the author, Thomas Payne, without error? No, but I recommended the book because it raised some astute criticisms of the use of fulfilled prophecies for apologetic ends.)

You criticize me for relying on the secular assumptions of an article written by Bruce Metzger in the Oxford Companion to the Bible. Yet it was Lee Strobel who called on Metzger as an expert witness in defense of biblical authority in The Case for Christ. And you failed to mention my quotation of John Goldingay’s similar view in the Word Biblical Commentary, published by stalwart evangelical publishing house Thomas Nelson. I’ll end this subject with an excerpt from page 113 of N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God, not exactly filled with secular assumptions: “Verses 36–45 [of Daniel 11] then describes the final boasting and sudden fall of Antiochus, the earlier verses (36–9) staying close to what we know as actual events, and the later ones (40–45) diverging—at the point, we assume, where the writer’s own time is to be located.” It is not only the enemies of the faith who place Daniel’s writing in the second century BCE, after the time of the events he correctly prophesied. Are you aware of how much agreement there is on this view, even among many evangelical scholars? Or do you side with fundamentalists on this point?

You write that I barely mention prophecies like Isaiah 53 (your point is well taken), though I did say a bit more that what you quoted. I’ll include here for your readers the rest of what I wrote related to Isaiah 53:

Perhaps the most famous of these passages, Isaiah 53, was not presented primarily as a prophecy but as a series of past events. Isaiah 44:28-45:3 would sound messianic if the name had not been made explicit: Cyrus, emperor of Persia. There are many references to “servant” in Isaiah, the most common being to Jacob/Israel (a simple computer text search can be used to confirm this), but also to Eliakim (22:20-25, which also has a messianic ring to it) and others. The problem is that most of the prophecies Christians consider to be messianic were not labeled as such when written.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses prophesied the return of Jesus in 1874 and again in 1914. When his return failed to materialize on these dates, the Witnesses saved face by claiming he returned only “spiritually.” The “prophecy” of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 seems amazing for those who accept the Christian assumptions about the purpose of Jesus’ death, but most of what it refers to is spiritual in nature, so it was possible to apply it to Jesus or to any other righteous person who was unjustly executed.

There are a few physical references in the passage, most notably to the servant’s being pierced (which could mean on a cross or with a sword or spear; being pierced has been a common enough method of execution throughout history) but also to his being “crushed.” It is not legitimate to focus literally on “pierced” as a miraculous prophecy of Jesus’ crucifixion while viewing “crushed” in a more figurative sense. Those who wish to employ the literal meaning of the first to posit a fulfilled prophecy must, in order to be consistent, accept the second as a failed prophecy, since John 20:36 testifies that “not one of his bones was broken.”

I didn’t mention this in my book, but (following Ehrman) one of the reasons I’m confident that Jesus existed (contrary to the Mythicists) is that we have no Jewish writings provably penned before the time of Jesus that suggest the future messiah was expected to be killed. For anyone to make up the story that Jesus was crucified would have run counter to all Jewish expectation. The Jews before Jesus did not interpret Isaiah 53 as messianic.

Clanger 3: [Quoting from my book]: “There is no evidence that any of the authors of these five sources [of the gospels] witnessed any of the events they described.” As Kenneth’s book was written three years later than Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the eyewitnesses’, the claim there is ‘no evidence’ was, and is, patently incorrect.

You’re correct that I was unaware of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses before I wrote my book, nor have I read his book since then, though I listened to a spirited (and highly recommended) exchange between him and Ehrman on Unbelievable. (By the way, I love the Unbelievable! podcasts; Justin does a great job selecting guests and moderating them.) Correct me if I’m wrong, but Bauckham himself doesn’t claim that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, only that the authors had access to eyewitnesses. At minute 26:14 in that exchange, Bauckham states, “I’m not attributing any of the Gospels to a Palestinian Jew, with two exceptions: one is Mark, and the other is the author of John’s Gospel, both of whom came from fairly elite aristocratic circles in Jerusalem” (this is not a description of Jesus’ disciples). In his followup exchange with Ehrman, Bauckham avers not that eyewitnesses themselves wrote the Gospels but that “the eyewitness testimony lies very close behind all of the Gospels” (minute 7:30-7:52).

N.T. Wright’s view in this video is the same as mine: “I don’t know who the Gospel writers were and nor does anyone else.” I know Wright endorsed Bauckham’s book, but does Wright now believe that the disciple Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew, for example? If so, I’d be interested in a citation. In any case, I don’t think even Bauckham would dispute my claim that “There is no evidence that any of the authors of these five sources [of the gospels] witnessed any of the events they described.”

In context, the point I was trying to make in my book was that the Gospels don’t generally provide independent testimony of the events they narrated. In that, I now know I was mistaken. In the passages where Matthew and Luke copy from Mark, I was correct to conclude that they were not independent (and incidentally, why would Matthew need to copy nearly verbatim from Mark, himself not an eyewitness, if Matthew had been an eyewitness of these events?). However, I should have known to point out that scholars (even unbelieving ones like Ehrman) do see independent sources within Matthew and Luke, namely M, L, and Q (not to mention John, which constitutes another independent set of sources).

I’m afraid this is all I have time for today but will plan to respond to more of your article as I’m able.


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A question for William Lane Craig on the resurrection of Jesus

This past Friday I had the privilege of seeing in person one of the greatest living apologists defend the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. About four hundred believers and skeptics gathered at an unlikely venue, a Dallas tavern called the Door, to hear William Lane Craig articulate why the majority of biblical scholars–from fundamentalists to atheists–accept the following four facts concerning Easter weekend:

  • FACT #1: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
  • FACT #2: On the Sunday following the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
  • FACT #3: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
  • FACT #4: The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

If you’ve read anything I’ve recently written about the anti-vaccination or anti-evolution or Jesus-mythicist movements, you know I tend to respect the consensus of experts in a given field, so Craig’s appeal to majority scholarly opinion on these four points does give me food for thought. It’s not that experts are infallible; it’s that I as a layperson am even more fallible, on average, than the experts. If I take a contrary position, odds are I’m going to be wrong and the experts are going to be right. It’s laughable to me how many Internet hobbyists or ideologues with an ax to grind defy the consensus of expert historians, scholars, and scientists in asserting that the Holocaust didn’t happen, than 9/11 was an inside job, that the Earth is younger than 10,000 years old, that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, that vaccinations cause more harm than good, that homeopathy is effective, that human-caused global warming isn’t a significant issue, or that GMO foods cause cancer.

After Craig’s presentation, attendees were given a chance to ask questions, alternating between Christians who had formed a line on the left and non-Christians who had lined up on the right. One of the Christians asked a question I was curious about: What is the exact percentage of scholars who hold to each of the four facts? Craig replied that, according to a study by apologist Gary Habermas, 75% of scholars accept Fact #2 (the empty tomb), while almost all scholars accept Facts #3 and #4. (I didn’t catch the percentage for Fact #1).

As I ruminated over these things relatively late during the Q&A period, I decided to queue up with the nonbelievers to pose a question that came to mind. I stood behind half a dozen other skeptics waiting their turn to challenge Craig (and in many cases to be roasted by him, sharp intellectual that he is), but time ran out before I had my turn.

So since I wasn’t able to ask him my question in person, I figure the next best thing is to pose it on my blog in the hope that someone who knows Craig better than I do might be able to answer on his behalf. In all honestly, it’s somewhat of a rhetorical question, but I still would be genuinely interested in knowing how he would respond to it. Without further ado, here’s the question:

Do you agree with the clear majority of the experts (scholars, historians, and scientists) on the following points?

  • The Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was not written by Moses, but was compiled in the sixth century BCE from various sources spanning hundreds of years.
  • We are descended from earlier ape-like primates through naturalistic processes
  • The Earth’s temperature is rising as a result of human activities
  • There was no mass exodus of Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land
  • The book of Daniel was written after the events it purports to predict
  • Jesus was not born in Bethlehem
  • The Gospels were all written no earlier than 70 CE
  • The epistle of 2 Peter was not written by Peter as it claims itself to be
  • The epistles of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were not written by Paul as they claim themselves to be

I am willing to entertain the likelihood that at least some of Craig’s four facts are true, especially those for which there really is a scholarly consensus. Fact #2 (the empty tomb), though it’s held by 75% of scholars, isn’t as compelling to me as the facts that enjoy unanimity. I’d be interested in reading more about the reasons the 25% give for parting from the 75%*.

In any case, if Craig considers a 75% scholarly majority a boon to the empty tomb, then I wonder whether he considers the >99% consensus of practicing biologists a boon to naturalistic evolution, for example. It’s my understanding that at least 75% (in many cases, it’s above 90%**) of critical scholars or experts in their field hold to the points above; is Craig swayed by any of them? If not, it seems his appeal to the experts is selective. As is mine, if I come to conclude that the tomb was not empty. But the 25% minority of scholars that dispute the empty tomb is far greater than the <1% minority of biologists who deny evolution, if we want to count noses.

Note: In this blog post, I’m not in any way seeking to establish that Jesus’ resurrection didn’t happen or to rebut all apologetic arguments in its favor. My intent here is much more narrow: to point out the selectivity of just one line of apologetic argumentation, that of William Lane Craig’s appeal to scholarly consensus.


* I understand Dr. Bart Ehrman formerly accepted Fact #2 but has relatively recently abandoned it. He accepts that a number of disciples did experience visions of Jesus, and later followers (writing the Gospels anonymously decades later) retroactively filled in the details that they imagined must have accounted for these visions: the appearance of Jesus’ real physical body after the women discovered the empty tomb. (Why women?  It was their traditional responsibility to bring the spices to the body, all the more so because the men had fled the area.)

** “…by the end of the twentieth century, New Testament scholarship was virtually unanimous in affirming that the Pastoral Epistles were written some time after Paul’s death” (from 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus: A Commentary“, page 4, by Raymond Collins).


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Why I Believe Jesus Existed

I find myself at odds with a number of my fellow skeptics on the question of Jesus’ existence. Perhaps it’s a cop-out, but at the top of my list of my reasons for believing he existed is that almost all the experts (historians and scholars of the period) agree he existed.

Since I’m not an expert, the chances of my having some important inside information or consideration not known to the experts are vanishingly small, so I defer to their expertise.

It’s the same reason I accept the finding of 97% of climate scientists on global warming, virtually all geologists and biologists on the age of the earth and evolution, and almost every doctor on the efficacy and safety of vaccinations.

I don’t mean to suggest that expert consensus can never be mistaken, but historically it’s very rare indeed for laypeople to be right when they oppose the experts.

Nor am I suggesting we blindly accept expert opinion; we owe it to ourselves to study and understand to some extent the reasons why the experts have adopted their position, along with reasons why a minority opposes them.

A couple of reasons I’m convinced Jesus existed:

1) The Jews did not expect a Messiah who would suffer. Without any known exception, they expected him to be an earthly, triumphant king who would save them from their physical oppressors. There’s no known record of Jews interpreting Isaiah 53 (the suffering servant) as pertaining to the Messiah prior to the time of Jesus. It’s hard to believe they would have made up his crucifixion if it hadn’t actually happened. And if he was crucified, he existed.

2) If Jesus hadn’t existed, it’s likely that those who invented him would have had him grow up in Bethlehem (to fulfill OT prophecy) rather than in the obscure, virtually unknown town Nazareth in the backwaters of Galilee. Matthew and Luke were no doubt aware he was from Nazareth and sought to explain how he could have been born in Bethlehem (in fulfillment of OT prophecy) while ending up in Nazareth. Matthew narrates Jesus’ family as originating from Bethlehem and fleeing to Nazareth under duress from Herod, while Luke has Jesus’ family originating in Nazareth and temporarily relocating to Bethlehem for a census. In both cases, the effect was the same: Jesus ended up in Nazareth, an unlikely and awkward place for a messiah who was supposed to originate from Bethlehem.

I’m aware that mythicists (the minority who believe Jesus didn’t exist) have objections to these arguments (one of them being the disputed claim that Nazareth didn’t even exist at the time), but without the training to evaluate every nuance, I defer to the experts.


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My Views on the Bible and Wealth as a Believer

While I was a believer, I strove as much as possible to take the Bible at its word and to understand what its authors (and ultimately its divine Author) intended to convey, unfiltered through the lens of my evangelical Christian community. Sometime during my four years at evangelical LeTourneau University, I began to sense that the modern evangelical church’s standard teachings on wealth conflicted with what I was reading in the New Testament.

You can learn the modern standard teaching quite easily: Go to just about any predominately white, middle-class, evangelical church gathering and ask them whether it’s okay for Christians to be rich, and you’ll likely hear some variation of this response, “Wealth can be a danger that takes us away from God, but wealth in and of itself isn’t wrong. You can be rich as long as you don’t let your wealth get between you and God, and as long as you use your money responsibly and give generously.” You can learn the same thing from evangelical self-help books on money management, for example, those by the unapologetically wealthy Dave Ramsey.

I’m not sure what precipitated my college-years realization that this party line didn’t jibe with at least a face value reading of many passages in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. It could have started as I was reading the Bible on my own. Or the seed could have been planted as I was reading about the lives and teachings of Christian leaders in a magazine I subscribed to at the time, Christian History. Or I might have been stirred by the teachings of Tony Campolo, a progressive evangelist who visited and spoke to us LeTourneau College students during a chapel session in 1998. In any case, I subsequently set myself on the course of studying what the Bible and church history had to say about wealth, and it became a minor preoccupation of mine to try to convince others that the standard evangelical teaching was misguided.

When we joined Wycliffe Bible Translators with the aim of bringing the Bible to a language group in the Sahara Desert, we were required to raise support from churches, friends, and family for our living and ministry expenses. On top of that, we had to raise money to contribute to our retirement fund. After reading Jesus say, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth,” I wrote to a Wycliffe administrator and asked for an exemption. In retrospect, I’m glad the administrator refused my request, because these savings did allow us make the down payment on our first house after we left the mission field.

While living in Niger, one of the most economically disadvantaged countries on earth, I struggled with the extreme poverty that pressed in on us from all sides, literally. One morning, as our family was driving through a police checkpoint, a group of children surrounded our pickup truck, begging for handouts. I tried to crack my door open so I could slip them a few slices of freshly baked banana bread, but they all pressed so hard against the door to be the first to win the prize that I wasn’t able to open it. In my frustration, I hit the accelerator and took off, leaving the children disappointed. This is just one of many encounters with poverty and guilt and exasperation I experienced living in Niger. How could we relate to the poor, those who seemed closest to Jesus’ heart, if we had a pickup, a sturdy house, plentiful food, medical care, and a ticket out of the country if things ever got too dangerous?

It wasn’t this issue alone that led me away from my former faith, but it was a small contributing factor. I saw how easy it was for evangelicals, including myself, to dismiss what seemed to me the clear teachings of the New Testament against wealth and in favor of poverty. And yet while dismissing these teachings, we routinely appealed to the authority of the Bible in other areas, using it as cudgel to beat others (gays come to mind) into submission. I couldn’t understand why so many couldn’t see the double standard this represented.

Following my deconversion, I no longer felt bound by the NT teachings on wealth, and I didn’t feel guilty about saving for retirement or spending money on some of the niceties of life. I think Dave Ramsey offers a lot of good advice for getting out of debt, saving for retirement, and giving generously. Nonetheless, I am convinced he ignores the distinct tilt against the rich and in favor of the poor woven throughout the NT, and he’s making a great deal of money convincing his followers that his teachings are biblical.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll include some of writings from 1991 and 1993 showing how I processed the NT teachings on wealth as a believer. These writings offer a window into my pre-deconversion devotion to God and my fervency in following what I believed to be his word.

I’ll start with a letter I wrote in 1993 to a pastor who presented the standard evangelical teaching on wealth.

Next, I’ll include some personal musings from 1993 related to leaders in church history who taught against wealth.

Finally, I’ll conclude with scriptural passages and quotes from church leaders that I presented to the student body of Columbia Biblical Seminary in 1991.


Dear Pastor ____,

On April 25 I attended your church and heard your message on greed from Luke 12.  I appreciated the things you said concerning the attitudes we are to have toward our possessions, though I feel I must respond to your position on Christians’ owning wealth.

I understand your position to be that it is not inherently wrong for a Christian to be wealthy as long as a proper attitude is maintained toward one’s possessions.  At one point you challenged the audience to find any instance where Jesus advocated a Spartan lifestyle.

In my readings of the New Testament I have never seen wealth spoken of in a positive light.  Mark 10:30 and parallel verses appear to be figurative since we can have only one biological mother.  And Christ’s parables about talents and minas cannot be viewed as an endorsement of wealth, since wealth is not the point of the parables.  It appears instead that Jesus and the apostles repeatedly warned of the dangers of wealth, even to the point of advocating a simple lifestyle.

Suppose a person were to read the gospel of Luke for the first time without the aid of a commentary or teacher to explain or interpret its teachings on wealth and the poor.  There would be little confusion about Christ’s general command in Luke 12:33 to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” after having read the statements “Blessed are you who are poor” (6:20) and “But woe to you who are rich” (6:24).  Nor would Jesus’ words come as a surprise to one who understood the significance of John the Baptist’s charge:  “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same” (3:11).  For how can one who remains in luxury obey this command fully while others eke out a bare existence (c.f. the Rich man and Lazarus, 16:19-31)?  And upon arriving at Luke 18:18-30 it would not enter the mind of our reader that Jesus was speaking only to this particular Rich Ruler or to those who merely harbored a wrong attitude about their wealth.  No such limitation exists in the text, so it would be natural to conclude that Christ desires those who are wealthy to “sell everything [not absolutely everything, I presume] and give to the poor” (v 22).

In all Christ’s statements about wealth he never said, as I heard in your sermon, “Let’s get this straight.  We are not dealing with the possession of things but our attitude toward them.”  If this is the point he intended to make, he did not make it clearly, nor did he tell the Rich Ruler that it would be OK for him merely to change his attitude.

But even if all these commands failed to convince the reader that the possession of great wealth is not in God’s will, then surely at the least the reader must know that to live simply is to follow Christ’s example, who said of himself, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (9:58).  Though Christ loved them, he never sought out the rich but came “to preach good news to the poor” (4:18).

In a world where great social imbalances exist (not always because of the industry of some and the sloth of others), the evangelical church in America is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the eyes of the people.  This will worsen as long as churches continue to neglect their duty to the poor and those outside the white middle class.  And congregations will not be stirred to their duty until it is made clear that they are robbing the needy with their new luxury cars, extravagant homes, and unneeded toys.  How the message of 2 Cor 8 needs to be imprinted in the minds of more evangelicals!  We excel in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness, but we fall short in the grace of giving (v 7).  Perhaps the world would take note if we were to follow the example of the Macedonian churches, who “out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.  They gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability” (vv 2-3).  Note that this example cannot be followed by those who retain their wealth.  Paul’s desire was “not that others might be relieved while you [the Corinthian church] are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (v 13).  Equality is not a term that comes to mind when I see the wealth of the evangelical church in America against the poverty of the church in developing nations.  Nor can equality exist when wealthy Christians keep their wealth, disregarding Christ’s several commands to sell and give it to the poor.  May I challenge you to preach Luke 12:33 as Christ preached it to all those gathered around him.  Many might leave your congregation, but Christ did not let such a possibility deter him from telling the truth to the Rich Ruler.

It may be objected that no man is the judge of another, and it is impossible to draw a line between enough and too much.  The same objection may be raised in considering a number of issues, among them standards of dress.  Women are told to dress modestly in church (1 Tim 2:9), yet the definition of modesty is variable from place to place and from generation to generation.  There is a line somewhere between Victorian dress and nudity, however, and it doesn’t take a trained theologian to know that there is something wrong with a woman attending Sunday morning worship in a bikini.  I don’t know precisely where the line is to be drawn, but as long as a Christian remains well within the limits there is no controversy.  In a similar way, I cannot tell you what constitutes excessive wealth, but I can say with confidence that one who owns several new and unneeded Rolls Royces cannot be living in God’s will.  And the farther one lives from the line of opulence the closer one will be to imitating our Lord, provided a spirit of humility is maintained.

It may be objected further that the Old Testament condones wealth through its teachings and through the examples of men like Abraham and Solomon.  I acknowledge this, yet it seems that a fundamental shift takes place in the New Testament, where spiritual realities are given more emphasis than physical forms.  The Temple and all its furnishings served as reminders of spiritual things, but they were no longer needed in the New Covenant.  Wars were fought with physical armies, but now we fight spiritual battles (Eph 6:10-20).  In the same way, material goods were given as a sign of God’s blessing to his chosen people, but now we are endowed with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph 1:3).

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter and for your excellent preaching.  Know that I am in agreement with you on most matters except this, and I trust that you will correct me if I have erred in any point.


The following quotes are from Christian History magazine, issue 19.  They express, with few modifications, my current [1993] view (but not quite my practice; that is more difficult) on wealth.

His [John Wesley’s] position [at Oxford University] usually paid him at least 30 pounds a year–more than enough money for a single man to live on. . .  One incident that happened to him at Oxford changed his perspective on money.  He had just finished buying some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door.  It was a winter day and he noticed that she had only a thin linen gown to wear for protection against the cold.  He reached into his pocket to give her some money for a coat, and found he had little left.  It struck him that the Lord was not pleased with how he had spent his money.  He asked himself:  “Will Thy Master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward?’  Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money that might have screened this poor creature from the cold!  O justice!  O mercy!  Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?”

Perhaps as a result of this incident, in 1731 Wesley began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor.  He records that one year his income was 30 pounds, and his living expenses 28, so he had 2 to give away.  The next year his income doubled, but he still lived on 28 and gave 32 away.  In the third year his income jumped to 90, again he lived on 28, giving 62 away.  The fourth year he made 120, lived again on 28 and gave 92 to the poor.

Wesley preached that Christians should not merely tithe, but give away all extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of.  He believed that with increasing income, the Christian’s standard of giving should increase, not his standard of living.  He began this practice at Oxford and he continued it throughout his live.  Even when his income rose into the thousands of pounds, he lived simply and quickly gave his surplus money away.  One year his income was slightly over 1,400; he gave all away save 30.  He was afraid of laying up treasures on earth, so the money went out in charity as quickly as it came in in income.  He reports that he never had as much as 100 at one time.

Consider also the words of Robert L Dabney (1829-1898), a Southern Presbyterian theologian, taken from the same magazine:

When a Christian man, who has professed to dedicate himself and his all, body, soul and estate, to the highest glory of God and love of his fellow-creatures, passes by the hundreds of starving poor and degraded sinners around him, the thousands of ignorant at home, and the millions of perishing heathen, whom his money might instrumentally rescue from hell-fire, and sells for a song his safe, strong, comfortable family carriage, and expends hundreds in procuring another, because his rich neighbor is about to outstrip him in this article of equipage; or when he sacrifices his plate [dishes] and china to buy new at great cost, because the style of the old was a little past; or when he pulls down his commodious dwelling to expend thousands in building another, because the first was unfashionable; is not this sinful waste?  When hundreds and thousands of God’s money are abstracted from the wants of a perishing world, for which the Son of God died, to purchase the barbaric finery of jewelry, as offensive to good taste as to Christian economy, jewelry which keeps out no cold blast in winter, and no scorching heat in summer, which fastens no needful garment and promotes no bodily comfort, is not this extravagance? . . . . .

I have yet to come fully to terms with how Christians should treat money, but I’m realizing more and more that it’s not our own.  According to Wesley, it is to be used to provide for the basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) of us and our family, spending the rest on those who are in need within and outside of the church.

We don’t usually think of John Wesley hating anything.  He was the one who always preached about love:  love for God and for neighbor. . .  But there was one word that Wesley hated.  He described this word as “idle,” “nonsensical,” “stupid,” “miserable,” “vile,” and “diabolical.”  He said it was “the very cant of hell.”  Obviously no Christian should ever utter it.  This exceedingly evil word was . . . “afford.”

“But I can afford it,” replied the Methodists when Wesley preached against extravagance in food, dress, or lifestyle.  Wesley argued that no Christian could afford anything beyond the bare necessities required for life and work. . . .

According to Wesley, God made us trustees of His resources so we may feed the hungry and clothe the naked in His name.  We should turn our extra money into food and clothing for the poor.  Just as it would be wrong to destroy other people’s food and clothes, so it is also wrong to spend money needlessly on ourselves.  “None can afford to throw any part of that food and raiment into the sea, which was lodged with him on purpose to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.”  But if we are determined to waste God’s money, Wesley argued that it would be better actually to throw it into the sea than to spend it extravagantly.  At least throwing money into the sea hurts no one, while spending it needlessly on ourselves poisons all who see it with “pride, vanity, anger, lust, love of the world, and a thousand ‘foolish and hurtful desires.'”


[2015] While attending Columbia Biblical Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina in 1990-91, I put together some passages of scripture and some voices from history on the subject of wealth. I don’t recall how it came about, but I was invited to present these passages (via an overhead transparency projector), along with my commentary, to the mandatory all-student chapel assembly one spring morning in 1991. A student leader approached me after the presentation and commented, “That’s powerful stuff; it’s where the rubber meets the road.” Below are the passages I presented, without modification (other than formatting). Apologies for the use of the KJV; I don’t recall why I used it, unless I was conscious of getting through to those in the audience wary of more modern versions.


Wealth of Abraham, Job, and Solomon

Proverbs 8:21  . . . that I may cause those who love Me to inherit wealth, that I may fill their treasuries.

Calvin:  Just as the Lord adorned flowers with beauty, colors, and sweet fragrance, so also did He create precious metals and stones with appealing qualities which reflect his glory.  “Has he not given qualities to gold and silver, ivory and marble, thereby rendering them precious above other metals or stones?  In short, has he not given many things a value without having any necessary use?” (Institutes, Vol II, 32)

Proverbs 24:3  Through wisdom is an house builded; and by understanding it is established: 4  And by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all precious and pleasant riches.

Luther: “For they [gold and silver] are not evil, even though they have been subjected to vanity and evil. . . .  If God has given you wealth, give thanks to God, and see that you make right use of it. . .” (Christian History, Vol. II, No. 2, 17).


Deuteronomy 28:1  And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe [and] to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the LORD thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth: 2  And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God. 3  Blessed [shalt] thou [be] in the city, and blessed [shalt] thou [be] in the field. 4  Blessed [shall be] the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy herds, and the flocks of thy sheep. 5  Blessed [shall be] thy basket and thy store. 6  Blessed [shalt] thou [be] when thou comest in, and blessed [shalt] thou [be] when thou goest out.

Deuteronomy 28:15  But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee: 16  Cursed [shalt] thou [be] in the city, and cursed [shalt] thou [be] in the field. 17  Cursed [shall be] thy basket and thy store. 18  Cursed [shall be] the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy herds, and the flocks of thy sheep. 19  Cursed [shalt] thou [be] when thou comest in, and cursed [shalt] thou [be] when thou goest out.

Ephesians 1:3  Blessed [be] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly [places] in Christ:


Luke 14:33  So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. 34  Salt [is] good: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned? 35  It is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill; [but] men cast it out. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Anthony Campolo: “I’m asking you to become followers of Jesus.  You say, ‘You mean I can’t own a Rolls Royce or a BMW?’  Of course you can’t!  Not and be a Christian” (Lecture at LeTourneau College, Longview, TX, March 24, 1988)

Luke 6:24  But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. 25  Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.

Luke 9:57  And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain [man] said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. 58  And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air [have] nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay [his] head.

Luke 12:16  And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: 17  And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? 18  And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. 19  And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, [and] be merry. 20  But God said unto him, [Thou] fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? 21  So [is] he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

William Jennings Bryan:  “No one can earn a million dollars honestly” (Christian History, Vol. VI, No. 2, 4)

1 Timothy 6:6  But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7  For we brought nothing into [this] world, [and it is] certain we can carry nothing out. 8  And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. 9  But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and [into] many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. 10  For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. 11  But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.


James 2:1  My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [the Lord] of glory, with respect of persons. 2  For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; 3  And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: 4  Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? 5  Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?

1 John 3:17  But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels [of compassion] from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?


Luke 3:7  Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8  Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to [our] father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 9  And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 10  And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? 11  He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.

St. Francis of Assisi:  Money intrinsically evil; would not permit disciples to touch it with their hands.  Resolved to become poorest of all men, trading his clothes with those of any beggar whom he found to be dressed more poorly than he.  “I think the great Almsgiver world account it a theft in me, did I not give that I wear unto one needing it more” (Christian History, Vol. VI, No. 2, 14).

Luke 12:32  Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33  Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth. 34  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Augustine:  “That bread which you keep, belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy.  Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often did you do them wrong” (Christian History, Vol. VI, No. 2, 35).

Luke 16:19  There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: 20  And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, 21  And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22  And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; 23  And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24  And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. 25  But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. 26  And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that [would come] from thence. 27  Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: 28  For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. 29  Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. 30  And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. 31  And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

Ezekiel 16:49  Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.

John Robinson:  “God could . . . either have made men’s states more equal, or have given everyone sufficient of his own.  But he hath rather chosen to make some rich, and some poor, that one might stand in need of another, and help another, that so he might try the goodness and mercy of them that are able, in supplying the wants of the rest” (Christian History, Vol VII, No. 3, 17).

Luke 14:12  Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor [thy] rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee. 13  But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind:

Isaiah 58:5  Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? [is it] to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes [under him]? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? 6  [Is] not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? 7  [Is it] not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? 8. Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.

Schaeffer, FrancisThe Church at the End of the 20th Century.  Inter-Varsity Press:  Downers Grove, IL  60515, 1970.

Let me say it very strongly again:  There is no use talking about love if it does not relate to the stuff of life in the area of material possessions and needs.  If it does not mean a sharing of our material things for our brothers in Christ close at home and abroad, it means little or nothing (73).

“Don’t start a big program. . . .  Start personally and start in your homes.  I dare you.  I dare you in the name of Jesus Christ. . . .  I want to ask you something if you are white.  In the past year, how many blacks have you fed at your dinner table?  How many blacks have felt at home in your home?  And if you haven’t had any blacks in your home, shut up about the blacks. . . .  Open your home to the blacks, and if they invite you, go with joy into their homes. . . .  How many times in the past year have you risked having a drunk vomit on your carpeted floor? . . .  How many times have you risked an unantiseptic situation by having a girl who might easily have a sexual disease sleep between your sheets? . . .  How many times have you had a drug-taker come into your home?  Sure it is a danger to your family, and you must be careful.  But have you ever risked it?  If you don’t risk it, what are you talking about the drug problem for if in the name of Christ you have not tried to help somebody in this horrible situation!  If you have never done any of these things or things of this nature, if you have been married for years and years and had a home (or even a room) and none of this has ever occurred, if you have been quiet especially as our culture is crumbling about us, if this is so–do you really believe that people are going to hell?” (107-109)


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We have more in common than we think

Though Americans have become more polarized politically and religiously over the past several decades, most of us still share more values in common than we tend to think. Our discussions and debates center around what divides us, leading us to forget what unites us. For example:

Most of us, whether liberal, or conservative, religious or nonreligious, are opposed to the beheading and burning of other human beings.

Most of us are opposed to killing in the name of religion or in the name of any Utopian ideology.

Most of us don’t want war unless we think it’s really necessary to save more lives than it takes.

Most of us want our populace to be literate and well educated.

Most of us want fair economic opportunity for all.

Most of us are happy when the economy grows and incomes rise for all accordingly.

Most of us don’t favor a widening gap over time between rich and poor, though we may differ on what to do about it, if anything.

Most of us don’t want people to judge each other simply on the basis of their racial background.

Most of us don’t want humans to be bought and sold and whipped for the labor they can provide their owners.

Most of us don’t want children to abused.

Most of us don’t want women to be raped.

Most of us want to live in safety, without fear of crime.

Most of us are happy when the rates of murder, burglary, teen pregnancies, suicides, STDs, and abortion decline.

Most of us are happy to see less misery not only in our country but in all countries around the world.

Most of us want to see children raised in loving families governed by responsible, productive, kind adults.

Most of us want our children to respect authority while thinking for themselves and asserting their independence of mind over time.

Most of us want as many individuals as possible to enjoy health coverage, rather than showing up in emergency rooms and being bailed out by hospitals, who pass on their expenses to those of us who do pay for services rendered.

Most of us want safe and smooth roads, clean water, functioning sewage systems, efficient electricity delivery systems, and a functional mail service.

Most of us appreciate the presence of at least a minimal safety net that will buffer us from the vicissitudes of financial ruin and exposure, whether in our youth or in our old age.

Most of us value the freedom to believe what we think is true and to let others enjoy that same freedom, even if their idea of truth differs from our idea of truth.

Most of us don’t want to be given the middle finger.

Most of us want to be treated with respect

Most of us admire men and women who work hard to provide for their family, whether financially, physically, or emotionally.

Most of us think that those who work hard should enjoy greater compensation than those who don’t.

Most of us respect those who plan ahead for their future as they are able, rather than those who spend recklessly in the present without regard for the future.

Most of us appreciate the protection afforded us by our police, our firemen and women, and our military, even if we don’t agree with all their actions all the time.

Most of us are don’t see our police and our military as being beyond criticism when they abuse their power, violating the values most of us hold.

Most of us see value in our fellow human beings and restrain ourselves from harming them.

Most of us consider it wrong to kick a puppy or to skin a cat alive.

Most of us consider it a virtue to remain faithful to our spouses if we’ve agreed to do so.

Most of us consider it a virtue to tell the truth to each other, even if we often fall short.

See? We’re mostly on the same page! If only most of us acted like it! We’re in this great American experiment together, left and right, center and libertarian, atheist and fundamentalist, Christian and Muslim, JW and Scientologist, Obama loving and Obama hating, Bush loving and Bush hating. Cheers to all (except to extremists who want to undermine the values most of us share, especially the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness)!

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A message to those still undecided about vaccination

This message is not intended for those who daily or weekly post pro- or anti-vaccination messages on my Facebook feed. You’ve already made up your mind, and there’s really nothing anyone can say to you to change it. I’m more concerned about those in the middle who witness as much anti-vaccination propaganda as pro-vaccination propaganda on their Facebook feeds, thinking this balance signals that the two positions are somehow equally evidence-based and equally worthy of your consideration.

In the 1990s I read an entire book whose thesis was that AIDS is not caused by HIV but by the anti-HIV drug AZT. I was bamboozled by all its scientific-sounding arguments. It made perfect sense. I even went out of my way to try to convince others of this truth that the world’s scientists and journalists had missed or suppressed, while the makers of AZT pulled the strings behind the curtain to fill their coffers.

As Y2K approached, I was swayed by the fearmongers, against the conventional wisdom of the establishment, that the world was headed for economic collapse due to the insidious an ineradicable Y2K bug that had infected and doomed our global electronic networks. I bought a good number of large sacks of millet, a staple of the people’s diet where we lived in Africa, to tide us for perhaps years following the impending collapse.

In 2004 I watched a video chock full of information that cast doubt on the reality of human-induced global warming. They had real scientists, with striking graphs and unassailable arguments, that for a time convinced me that the notion of global warming was a manufactured crisis with nothing to fear. The majority of scientists who felt otherwise were either innocently mistaken (not knowing what I had recently learned) or perversely conspiratorial.

In high school I devoured books from a young-earth creationist perspectives, learning proofs for a young earth that I was convinced most mainstream scientists didn’t have a clue about or chose to suppress: a lack of thick moon dust, too-dilute salts in the oceans, rapid magnetic decay rates, the ability of flooding to carve features of the Grand Canyon very quickly, the erroneous 2-million-year radiometric dating results of material recently ejected from Mount Saint Helens, the upright tree fossils entombed in multiple sedimentary strata supposedly representing thousands or millions of years of deposition, etc.

You get the picture. In each of these cases, I knew better than the mainstream experts. I read and I studied and I knew they were wrong. Even before the advent of Google, there were plenty of books to whet my contrarian appetite.

Dr. Gerardus Bouw, who earned his PhD in astrophysics from the University of Rochester, knows better than just about every scientist alive that the earth is the center of the universe and that the sun revolves around the earth. See his testimony and his information–packed web page. He has read a great deal more and knows a great deal more about astrophysics than I do. He has read, read, read, studied, studied, studied on this subject. It’s his life.

But I don’t by it.

And I no longer buy Ken Ham’s young-earth views, even though he’s read more about the age of the earth than I have.

And I’m no longer swayed by Peter Duesberg’s meticulous arguments that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, even though he knows much more on the subject than I do.

And I no longer buy Anthony Watts’ arguments that climate change is a hoax, even though he knows a great deal more on the subject of climate change than I do.

And I’m certainly not wowed by the many articles that grace my Facebook feed claiming to uncover the suppressed truth that vaccines cause more harm than good. “But Ken, you’ve got to read this!”, they plead. “You just don’t realize the facts!” Okay, well, I have read some of these articles–not a lot of them–but enough to know that the incidence of measles deaths was in sharp decline even before the measles vaccine was introduced, that people can get sick and even die from the vaccine, that fewer than one in 1,000 (or maybe 3,000) who contract measles die from the disease, etc. etc.

I admit it; I don’t know as much about the subject as many of the most ardent opponents of vaccination. I have seen enough of these University of Google gadflies to know that they are serious, they’ve studied a lot, and they are irrevocably convinced of not only the truth but also of the moral rectitude of their position.

It’s the same old refrain repeated by every marginal group that wants to make itself heard above the stifling consensus (whether it’s 9/11 Truthers, anti-Obama Birthers, UFOlogists, zoocryptologists, homeopathists, gluten-haters, Dr. Ozists, anti-GMOers, geocentrists, moon-landing deniers, holocaust deniers, or young-earth creationists): You (mainstream people) JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT WE KNOW! WE’VE GOT THE INSIDE SCOOP that the experts don’t know or don’t want others to know, so they can (line their pockets, or suppress the truth, or whatever).

But the collective anti-vaccination movement doesn’t know squat compared to the scientists at the CDC (and at similar institutions around the world) who’ve rigorously studied the history, behavior, and treatment of infectious diseases. They don’t know jack compared to the university professors and laboratory scientists and physicians who’ve made studying and combating these diseases in the crucible of peer review and first-hand experience their life’s work.

Well, maybe the denizens of the CDC really do know the hidden truth that the vigilant anti-vaccination graduates of the University of Google have uncovered. Maybe it’s not that the CDC is ignorant; it’s that they’re all in a massive, perfectly coordinated conspiracy, along with the entire scientific and journalistic establishment to hide the truth from us unsuspecting sheeple so they can, uh, line their pockets with the profits from the ill-begotten gains of Big Pharma and their vaccination hustlers?

Ken, are you telling me that scientists cannot err? Not at all; they’re human!

So then, if the scientific experts are just as prone to be mistaken as us non-experts, then let’s all just ignore science altogether, shall we?  If flipping a coin is just as likely as listening to scientists to get us to the truth, then let’s just go with our gut or our prior values when they conflict with what scientists tell us. If I’m a peasant living in the 16th century and Galileo tells me that a feather will fall to the earth as fast as a cannon ball in a vaccuum, then my gut takes the day. If Galileo also tells me we’re zooming around the sun on a little earth-ball at the rate of 17,000 miles per hour and my experience and religion say otherwise, then so much for Galileo. If I believe infectious diseases are caused by evil spirits and a scientist insists they’re caused by invisible microorganisms, then so much for the germ theory of disease. If scientists tell us that the earth is billions of years old but I believe the Bible tells me it’s only thousands of years old, then the scientists must be ignorant or must be conspiring to suppress what we don’t know. After all, I respect Ken Ham, Todd Wood, Henry Morris, and Steven Austin, and they’re smart, so if smart people can believe the earth is young, and the Bible teaches it, then it’s settled.

And if I believe nature is just fine the way God (or nature) made it, and that human-made or tampered-with substances (like GMO foods or vaccines) constitute an assault to the integrity of my body and its natural disease-fighting systems, then NOTHING anyone–not even, or especially, the truth-suppressing experts–tells me will make me believe that vaccines don’t cause more harm than good.

Okay, so now that I’ve managed to alienate perhaps 90% of my readers with my sanctimonious science-supporting screed, I’ll come to the main point of this essay:

There are too many Facebook and blog posts spreading confusion about vaccines. They believe themselves to be better informed than those who know the subject best, or they have the chutzpah to suggest that the entire hard-working, honest medical establishment is in the pockets of the vaccine makers and thus is deliberately pulling the wool over the eyes of the unsuspecting (were it not for the valiant efforts of the brave U of Google gadflies) populace.

If there were no ill consequences to their contrarian message, I would say live and let live. But there are consequences that can and will adversely affect us all if they succeed in making everyone think like them. Their message can cause real damage, well-meaning though they may be.

So to those who are indifferent or who are on the verge of being swayed by the anti-vaccination movement, please push back. Ask yourself whether its likely that the entire scientific establishment has somehow either innocently or maliciously overlooked what the University of Google gadflies have so valiantly uncovered. Really?

If you don’t think it’s likely, then please join me and others and show everyone else on your Facebook feed where you stand by placing a simple message on your feed:

“I stand with the scientific experts on vaccinations. I believe they know better than their detractors and that they’re not conspiring against us.”

Or something to that effect–just something simple to your taste that demonstrates that you (along with the vast majority of the American population) don’t stand with the loud anti-vaccination movement that seems to be growing louder by the day.

For further reading: This article from National Geographic diagnoses the root of anti-science sentiment far better than I could ever hope to do.


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I’m right and I know it

Though I enjoy a robust sparring with my ideological opponents, there are times I have to step away from the fray in the interest of preserving a valued relationship. I have to back away from being “right” to being a friend. But why does it have to be this way? What are the factors that push a dialog to the brink of ill will?

Of all the landmines that threaten progress in dialogue, perhaps the greatest is our failure even to attempt to see things from our opponent’s point of view. And perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this failure is our tendency to assert our respective beliefs as matters of fact, without first convincing our sparring partners of their validity.

To illustrate this tendency, I’ll draw from my own history of failure. Though it happened over a decade ago, I remember as if it were yesterday a conversation I was having with a young-earth creationist friend in which I made an unqualified assertion that the earth is very old, much older than the 10,000-year limit he placed on its age. Sure, I started by reciting some scientific arguments I thought should convince him of my position, thereby giving me (in my mind) grounds to make the blanket pronouncement, “The earth IS old” [subtext: “whether you like it or not”]. It didn’t help matters when I told him I was 100% certain of that fact. Not 90% certain, not 99% certain, not 99.999% certain, but 100% certain.

It has only slowly and relatively recently dawned on me how counterproductive it can be to act like this, nor have I fully learned my lesson. It’s just so tempting to underline and bold and italicize my position by stating it with the utmost confidence, as if I couldn’t possibly be mistaken. If only I can get my opponent to see how confident I am in making my assertions, maybe he’ll internally compare his lesser confidence with my greater confidence and so begin to doubt his own hold on his position. But what if the opponent comes back with an equal and opposing confidence in his view? Perhaps both sparring partners really do inwardly share the same confidence, in which case Newton’s 3rd law will have its way, like two equally massive locomotives cruising at equal and opposite velocities ramming each other on the tracks. Not pretty. Alternatively, perhaps one of the sparring partners really is as confident as she projects, while the other is not quite as confident but feels the need to project an equal degree of confidence so that the other’s locomotive doesn’t push her locomotive back when they collide. Or perhaps neither party is as confident as they project but must maintain the illusion of supreme confidence for fear of appearing weak. And so it becomes a game of chicken, a bluffing game to defend one’s position at all costs. This projection of confidence, this strutting, too often pushes otherwise friendly exchange of views to the brink of enmity.

This posturing can take both defensive and offensive forms and can become a two-way game. For example, if, after presenting their case, one of the two parties can’t understand how the other party still can’t see the light, it can be tempting to call the other’s bluff: “You don’t REALLY believe that; you’re just bluffing to avoid having to come to terms with your unsupportable position.” This shrewd tactic serves not only to elevate one’s own confidence but to diminish (at least in the mind of the one calling the bluff) the confidence of the opponent, thus doubly tipping the confidence game of chicken in one’s favor. But it’s also devastating to the relationship, as it challenges the integrity of the opponent, essentially coloring him as a liar. Once that happens, any further dialog becomes difficult at best.

The psychological experience of complete confidence in one’s position is exceedingly common, even for those who are mistaken. Recently I listened to a lecture series called Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills by neurologist Steven Novella. I was particularly struck by how easy it is for our memories to be contaminated while remaining 100% confident that we remember past events correctly. It’s not something we do consciously; our minds simply invent new details or distort real ones, resulting in false memories. This is why eyewitness testimony is so often problematic: witnesses exhibit full confidence in their memories but are often nonetheless mistaken. It’s not that they’re bluffing; they do believe they’re correct when in fact they’re not. This being the case, I consider it both charitable and realistic to give others the benefit of the doubt when they say they believe something that seems incomprehensible to us, rather than assuming a bluff. It’s still possible they’re bluffing, but I’ve learned not to assume it.

Looking back at my behavior in debating my young-earth creationist friend, I now realize that instead of saying outright, “The earth is old,” a more productive, friendly approach would have been to say, “I’m convinced the earth is old, and here are some reasons why.” This doesn’t mean I’m any less confident in the antiquity of the earth than if I were to assert it point blank, but it demonstrates more respect to my sparring partner when I explain my reasons rather than asserting the conclusion. And here’s the hard part: even AFTER explaining my reasons,  I will now still refrain from asserting my conclusion unless and until my opponent adopts my position. This is difficult, especially when I have that psychological experience of complete confidence in my position, along with just about every practicing field geologist in the world today. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. But at least we keep our friendship intact.

Lest you think I’m being entirely altruistic in backing down from a more assertive stance, I’m looking for a trade of sorts. Both skeptics and believers issue their fair share of blanket pronouncements in dialog rather than acknowledging differences of opinion and prefixing their pronouncements with simple softeners like, “I’m convinced of a because of x, y, and, z“. I’d like to think (perhaps I’m naive) that if we could all tone our bravado down a notch, we could engage in a more productive, charitable exchange of ideas.

Accordingly, I’ll aim to avoid unqualified pronouncements like the following when addressing those who disagree:

  • We share a common ancestor with all other living creatures
  • It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that). [Quote from Richard Dawkins in the New York Times, 1989]
  • The Universe is 13.7 billion years old
  • Jesus is not coming back
  • Jesus is Dead [The title of a book by Robert M. Price]
  • You believe because it gives you hope for life after the grave
  • You believe because it gives you meaning in life
  • You believe because it gives you a foundation to impose your moral views on others

And in return, I would hope my sparring partners would avoid unqualified statements like the following when engaging with those like me who don’t accept them:

  • Jesus is coming back
  • God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life
  • You don’t really believe in evolution; it’s too unbelievable
  • Deep down, you really believe in God and in the Gospel; you’re just not admitting it
  • Jesus rose from the dead
  • Atheists just want to get God off their back so they live their lives free of him
  • Atheists are angry at God
  • You have no reason to be moral if you don’t believe in God
  • You can have no basis for logic if you don’t believe in God
  • Life can have no true meaning without God
  • You’re going to be in for a surprise when you wake up before God after you die
  • Many prophecies in the Old Testament where were supernaturally fulfilled in Jesus’ life
  • Homosexuality is a sin against God
  • Moses wrote the Pentateuch
  • Paul wrote all the epistles ascribed to him in the New Testament

Let me be clear: I am most emphatically NOT saying believers should avoid making statements like the above. What I am suggesting is that, when addressing nonbelievers, they should preface such statements with the simple modifier, “I believe that…”. For example, “I believe that atheists have no reason to be moral, and here’s why” is a whole lot less provocative than, “Atheists have no reason to be moral.” If you’re a believer and you don’t appreciate the difference, then consider the following two statements: “Jesus is dead,” and, “I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, and here’s why.” Which one do you prefer?

No doubt there will be those on my side of the fence who will object to the suggestion that we add any disclaimers to propositions that enjoy a scientific consensus, rather than stating them as matters of fact. For example, if I were to encounter a geocentrist who believes that the sun goes around the earth, or an animist who believes that infectious diseases are caused by evil spirits rather than by microbes, or a flat earth believer, should I risk watering down the truth by saying, “I am convinced the earth is not flat,” rather than stating unequivocally, “The earth is not flat!”, or by averring, “I am convinced the earth is old,” rather than plainly stating, “The earth is old!”

I understand and share this concern, and I’m also concerned that I’ll be perceived as a post-modernist who holds that all truths are relative and simply “true for me” or “true for you.” To be sure, I would prefer to just say, “The earth is old; now get over it!” rather than to qualify my statement in the interest of improved relations. But if the facts are on our side, arguing our case respectfully with the facts will stand a better chance of getting through to the other side than deliberately bludgeoning them with a take-no-prisoners pronouncement.

This modest proposal is rooted in the ideal of putting oneself in the shoes of another. It’s also rooted in mutual respect, whereby when one party says they believe something, we take them at face value rather than imputing the worst of motives on them. Some atheists assume that all believers are willfully ignorant or that they really don’t believe what they say they do. Some believers assume the same about all atheists. I’m convinced our mistaken beliefs are rooted more in the foibles of our imperfect brains than in a willful self-deception over which we have conscious control. I’ve lived on both sides of the divide: I know what it feels like to be convinced that evolution is untrue, for example, but I also now know what it feels like to be convinced that it’s true. If you say you don’t believe evolution is true, I’ll take you at your word; I’ve been there. If you tell me I don’t really believe evolution is true, then we have nothing further to say to each other, especially if you have never lived the experience of being convinced of the truth of evolution.

I’ll speak frankly here: some–certainly not all–believers with whom I’ve engaged in conversation have demonstrated not the slightest willingness to put themselves in my shoes. They assume my motives are dark. They know that morality can have no foundation without God, and they are not in the least interested in learning the basis for my morality or for that of millions of humanists the world over. They know that the complexity of life could not have risen by chance, and they’re not in the least interested in truly knowing the evidence that has lead to a consensus on evolution (which is based not merely on chance) among biologists. And many atheists are no less ugly toward believers who don’t bend in the face of their assertions.

What if we were all willing to step back a bit from our machismo, from our need to assert, from our need to blame? Would this not increase the chances for a dialog of mutual respect in which we’re willing to show some humility, acknowledge the possibility we could be mistaken, open ourselves to learning something new from others, and refuse to impute the worst possible motives on our ideological opponents?



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How to Prevent Youth from Apostatizing

We’ve all read the hand-wringing articles alerting the faithful to the growing crisis of youth apostasy in the church. Depending on the article, between 20% and 85% of church youth leave the fold in college or early adulthood, never to return. Inevitably these articles offer an analysis of why this is happening (typically blaming their parents or churches or pizza-and-entertainment-loving youth groups), along with prescriptions for stemming the tide (usually including better teaching, more Bible study, more apologetics, more prayer, and more true conversions). For a sampling of such articles, simply google why our youth are leaving the church.

Most of these analyses seem to be based on the best guesses of the authors, supported by the conventional wisdom and shared views of their believing audience. A few of the authors do go to the trouble of actually asking apostates why they left the faith. However, the articles I’ve read in the latter category tend to filter the words of the apostates through an evangelical lens, without really allowing the apostates’ true reasons come through.

As a flesh and blood apostate, I’ll offer a few of my humble best guesses as to how to prevent youth from leaving the fold, based on a retrospective of my own experience. I offer two alternative tracks, which I’ll call the Insular Track and the Liberal Track. I’m not sure which track, if any, would have prevented me from taking the path I’ve followed.

#1: Insular Track

    1) Don’t give them unfettered access to the Internet. On this point I’m in agreement with apologist Josh McDowell, who maintains that the Internet is the greatest threat to Christians. Granted, it’s probably rare for an unwavering youth to be blindsided by a single Internet article, but if she already has some doubts about the truth of the gospel, she’ll have no problem finding a wealth of well-reasoned arguments against her faith, potentially destabilizing her moorings irrevocably. This is what happened to me: I was struggling with certain passages of the Bible in Africa in 2000, searched for some help from a Christian perspective, and ended up finding and reading Dr. Robert Price’s Beyond Born Again, which threw my already fragile faith into a tailspin and led me to realize I was not alone in my doubts.

    2) Don’t send your kids to a Christian college. I attended LeTourneau University, an evangelical school whose library happened to have a book called Christianity and the Age of the Earth by evangelical geologist Davis Young (1988), that had convinced me I had been wrong about the age of the earth and that my reasons for believing in a young earth had been merely illusory. This was not the main reason I left the faith, but it did put me at odds with the majority of Christians in my circles, making it easier eventually to question others of their claims.

    3) Don’t encourage them to read the Bible in its entirety, especially the Old Testament, unless you’re prepared to explain, for example, why it was moral for God to order the Israelite men to keep the virgins for themselves (we all know what that means) after slaughtering the Midianite men, women, and children. And don’t condemn Muslims for doing similar acts if you’re not prepared to condemn those of the Israelites.

    4) Don’t dismiss their genuine questions with exasperation or with accusations of rebellion or bias. Listen to them and admit they have good questions, and don’t offer them facile answers they can see through.

    5) Don’t let them meet kind and wise individuals outside the fold, like some of the Muslims I met in Africa, or like one of my bosses as work, who’s married to another man. A sensitive soul can’t rightly stomach the idea that these outsiders are deserving of eternal damnation.

#2: Liberal Track

    1) Teach them that the earth is very old and that we share common ancestors with all other creatures on earth. This will spare them a rude encounter with reality once they discover the overwhelming evidence for evolution.

    2) Teach them that the Bible is not inerrant. When they find true contradictory passages in the Bible, they won’t be thrown into an existential crisis like the one I faced when I had to sign a statement of inerrancy with my mission employer.

    3) Teach them that hell is either nonexistent or of limited duration, and that even some of the NT writers like Paul did not subscribe to eternal damnation, but rather the annihilation/destruction of the lost.

    4) Teach them that love and respect are the pillars of any decent family, friendship, and society, and for goodness’ sake, spend more time advocating for the poor, the outcast, and the unjustly treated, than you do expressing thinly veiled or explicit contempt for blacks, gays, welfare recipients, and Obama.

Interestingly, some of the strongest criticisms of my book came from those who believe my background was too strict, so that when I did encounter the real world of ambiguity, I wasn’t able to weather the storm like a pliable liberal reed, but instead broke like a brittle fundamentalist oak. See, for example, this review and my response to it. See also this review.

In truth, probably neither of these tracks would have prevented my departure from the fold, but I’d like to think that Track #2 would have offered me a better chance, because I think it’s the more honest approach.

I’ll offer yet a third track, which I’ll call the Pious Track, representing some of the most common suggestions I’ve read in the online articles aiming to diagnose and treat the problem of apostasy. It’s the track I actually followed, but it didn’t prevent me from doubting the Bible and eventually the existence of God.

#3: Pious Track

    1) Accept Jesus into your heart and really mean it

    2) Read and study the Bible, both individually and in groups, and believe it’s God’s very word

    3) Pray, cultivating a one-on-one relationship with Jesus

    4) Respect, love, and obey your parents

    5) Attend church

    6) Serve God in ministry a lot

    7) Tell others about Jesus and lead them to him

    8) Study doctrine and believe orthodox things about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the resurrection, and the Bible

    9) Live a chaste life

    10) Ask God forgiveness for every known and unknown sin

    11) Praise God for who he is and what he’s done

    12) Believe that salvation is through faith, not works

I confess I have no answers for those who really do want to know how to prevent their youth from leaving the fold, though that’s likely unsurprising coming from someone like me. Perhaps this post will offer a window in the mind of an apostate for those who’ve only read articles on this subject from the point of view of the faithful.

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Am I Evil?

Am I evil? Am I capable of pulling a switch to shock experimental subjects to the point of excruciating pain or even death? Am I the kind of person who would walk past a wounded person in need while making my way to give a speech on charity?

While commuting to work I’ve been listening to a set of 40 lectures from an enlightening course entitled Why Evil Exists (, in which University of Virginia religion professor Charles Mathewes surveys Western and Middle Eastern views on evil from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the modern era. The majority of the course looks at evil from a religious perspective, but I was particularly interested in hearing about a couple of key twentieth-century scientific experiments that reveal some scary tendencies in human nature.

No doubt many of you are familiar with the Milgram experiments, in which subjects were led to believe they were participating in an experiment that required them (at the behest of “scientists” in white coats) to pull a lever to deliver a series of increasingly severe electric shocks to other “subjects” behind a glass wall. The majority of those who were asked to pull the lever did so until the shock recipient actors nearly “died.”

Professor Mathewes also reflects on the “Good Samaritan Experiments,” in which one set of Princeton Seminary students was asked to deliver a speech on the Good Samaritan while another set was to give a nonreligious speech. As the speech-giving students walked from on Princeton building to another, they passed by an “injured” man in clear need of assistance. Most of the students neglected to stop and help the “injured man,” and it didn’t make a difference whether the speech they were about to give was on the Good Samaritan or not.

My first instinct was to think that I would be better than the subjects in these experiments, but then I realized that no doubt most of those who failed would have thought of themselves as good, upstanding people incapable of such moral ineptitude.

Though I’d like to think I’d do better than majority of these experimental subjects, maybe I’m just like the majority of individuals who think they’re morally better than the average person. The majority can’t be better than average, by definition.

Perhaps it’s helpful for all of us to reflect from time to time on our very real capacity for evil, especially those of us who think most highly of our moral rectitude. Did Hitler think himself immoral? No; as he wrote in Mein Kampf, “By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work.” I concur with the Apostle Paul, who wrote in Romans 12:3, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”

Had I been a Hutu in 1994, could I have wielded a machete and mowed one or more of the million Tutsi slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide? As I sit in my warm, comfortable home in front of my glowing computer screen while my beautiful wife decorates the Christmas tree, with one son home from college for the holidays and another one on the way tomorrow, with a full belly and everything I need to flourish, am I in a position to judge whether, in a particular set of circumstances, in a time of want, in a wave of popular tribal ferment, I would not be capable of such moral monstrosities?

There but for the grace of circumstances (or, if you prefer, by the grace of God) go I.

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