For better or worse, I wouldn’t be who I am without the pastors I’ve had in my life. For the most part, these men (and one woman) meant and did well. They were consistent, and lived by creeds they took seriously. There’s some respectability in that. When I left the church (the first time around), I was understandably angry. Why hadn’t the details that inspired my doubts been discussed openly? The damnable doctrine of Hell and its origin in previous mythology, or the metaphor of a trash pit being transformed into eternal torment. The right to own slaves, Israeliets for no more than six years, or foreigners indefinitely (Exodus 21). Or how the books of the Bible were not authored by those whose names are attributed to the text, gospels and epistles alike. Even Moses’ books record his death, at the very least even the likes of Ken Ham have to posit a few extra hands on that pen. Then there are particularly disturbing passages concerning the killing of children and infants, such as the Amalekites ( 1 Samuel 15:3), or the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 11).
Songs and Psalms praise the subject, Psalm 136:10 reads “To Him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt His love endures forever”. The Egyptians are certainly not on the receiving end of that love. What good comes from such lurid fantasies? I’ve heard many defenses for these portions of the text, and none of them are excusable. Cruel doctrines make cruel people. Thankfully, History most likely didn’t happen that way.
Seriously check it out, the biblical text is full of atrocities. This is to say nothing of “lost” books and even “lost” Christianities who were choked out because of political battles rather than earnest spirituality. Some of these books are fairly dismissed. Who would want the gospel of Eve to be true, with it’s encouragement to couple coitus interruptus with the eating of one’s semen (ick)? Most likely, this lost gospel was simply made up just to demonize a Barborite sect and make them appear disgusting to competitors. Biblical books that made the cut do the same thing. With all of the details that never really made their way into 26 years of sermons, I felt like I was lied to. Yet that feeling may have fallen short of the truth just a bit.
I don’t believe my pastors intended to deceive anyone on these matters.
The faith can be a difficult thing to maintain for extended periods of time. The cognitive dissonance of what the faithful call “worldly thinking” will wear against dogma, and a choice will need to be made. Accept the book and the answers it gives, or run the risk of going to Hell. Many ministers do what I did, which is to just accept the conclusions and hope the premises would line up along the way. There can be peace in acceptance. However, in many ways I was wrong to feel and say that my pastors had lied to me. At times I was probably bullshitted, but lies were probably pretty uncommon. A lie, requires the one who tells is to know they are being deceptive. Bullshitting, as Philosopher Harry Frankfurt notes in his masterpiece “On Bullshit”, simply requires the teller to not care about the truth.
Yet my ministers, for the most part, really believed the core of the Biblical narrative. A few clever answers were needed to address why Revelation 22 has Jesus saying two millenia ago, “Behold I’m coming quickly”, but the heart of the story was unshakable. C.S. Lewis’ alliterative “Liar, lunatic, or lord” idea is one that captures my point. Jesus, when read in the gospel texts, requires a response. Either he is lying about being God’s anointed one (literal meaning of “messiah”), or insane and speaking from an ill mind, or he is indeed the real deal. Yet this is a false trichotomy. Jesus very well could have simply been wrong, and not have known it. We humans are often mistaken. This isn’t deep Philosophy. This won’t change minds. Yet the points still stands. Jesus could have felt his convictions deeply, inspired a following, and even stirred up enough trouble to get himself nailed to a cross (not a difficult task in Ancient Rome), all while simply being gravely mistaken. The occasional good aphorism or beatitude can still be clung to. Love your neighbors, radically accept others. Christians in my life who live out these principles are good friends I love dearly. Yet the ugly parts can dismissed as just that.
Jesus’ disciples were surely distraught and completely heartbroken after his death, and who wouldn’t be? The Old Testament certainly seems to depict the coming messiah as a leader who would be above a tortuous execution alongside thieves and murderers. The dying and rising god concept already had precedent in earlier myths, but it was not apart of Judaism, not yet. The absurdity of it would have hurt the disciples all the more long before Tertullian would embrace it as a defense for faith.
This is most likely why despite dying, the narratives turn his death into a victory and even invoke a miraculous resurrection, so as to make Jesus look all the better. Yet did these men lie? Is the distortion really as pernicious as it may seem? I don’t know and neither does anyone else. For all of the blood that has soaked the Earth, it could have just as likely all been mistake. Perhaps much more likely than a plot to control the masses. Lying for the purposes of manipulation is often the claim, but well-meaning believers happened to be wrong is a lot more in line with my personal experience. It makes just as much sense the these people could have been sorely mistaken and remained firm in their convictions.
Difficult problems don’t always have immediately satisfying answers. Even us secular folk have to struggle to make sense of this shared experience we call reality. However too often the men and women who lead the faithful are condemned and held to standards they never should be, as being above human weakness. Of course some pastors lie. Yet they are no worse (or better) than me in any significant respect, with regards to their capacity to do good. I really believe these people believe, and it’s a disservice to both them and me to write them off as deceivers.