Burkhardt’s review can be found at http://www.in1accord.net/white/Books_FaithPhilosophy.html#ThouShaltNotBelievebyJohnUbhal.
The first thing I would like to do is to clarify that the person mentioned at the beginning of Burkhardt’s review with whom he had the dinner conversation he mentions was not me. I know that Burkhardt did not intend to convey that this person was me, but I think those who read his review may well believe it was. I would never say that political conservatives or those of any other political persuasion are “intellectually inferior beings,” nor would I ever say anything like that about Christians, Muslims, or adherents/practitioners of any other tradition I believe to be based on false premises and teachings. While I am very comfortable attacking ideas I disagree with, I am not at all comfortable attacking the people who believe them.
I would also like to thank Burkhardt for taking the time to read my book and write a thoughtful review. While I obviously disagree with almost everything he wrote, I appreciate that he did, I too hope our friendship continues, and I believe that it will.
As for whether my book should shape people’s reading of the New Testament, I would advise people who have no basis for belief either way to read the Bible (particularly Genesis and the New Testament) without first reading my book or any other book about what Christianity teaches and come to their own conclusions, then decide whether my account of the Christian Message is fair and accurate, as I believe it is, or a caricature, as Burkhardt claims. I think anybody who has already been exposed to the teachings of Christianity, regardless of the tradition, will find it worthwhile to read my book, and I particularly think those who have been exposed primarily to a theologically conservative form of Protestantism will find it worthwhile.
The title of my book is harsh and uncompromising, as is the content, and I was certainly braced for harsh rebuttals from believing Christians. In fact, I welcome them, as I believe tough but honest debates about this and other controversial topics are far more fruitful than beating around the bush or attempting to spare people’s feelings.
My standards for analyzing ostensibly historical and empirical claims and why I doubt the reliability of the canonical gospels
My standard for analyzing ostensibly historical and empirical claims is laid out in my book. For ostensibly empirical and historical claims, I state that my standard is as what the best available evidence suggests. I know this is vague and for that reason I try to flesh out what I mean by it every time I analyze an ostensibly empirical or historical claim. However, I want it to be relatively vague precisely because I do not want to limit myself to the “secular evidence” cited by Burkhardt in his review.
To help clarify what I mean by this standard, in my book I repeat the oft-repeated maxim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Carl Sagan popularized this maxim and I believe that it fundamentally makes sense as a limitation on what a person can legitimately believe. The reason I agree with this maxim is negative: if this limitation on what one is willing to believe were not observed, then there would be literally no limit to what a person could believe solely on the authority of a person or literary source they trust. I admit that I, along with everybody else, believe in some things on authority. For example, I believe the Spanish Armada set sail for England in 1588 solely on the basis of what I have read in history books. However, there is nothing extraordinary about believing such a thing. Naval fleets continue to set sail for distant seas in the contemporary world and it is not far-fetched to believe the same thing happened in 1588, particularly when multiple other historical sources indicate that the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were the time when control of the high seas started to become a significant aim of Western European countries.
It is true that I was not present in Palestine 2,000 years ago and that I don’t know what happened. But that is true of everybody alive today, both Christians and non-Christians. In fact, nobody today knows whether Jesus even existed. Now, I admit that this is true of scores of historical figures, but there is a key difference between the Abrahamic religions and other traditions that should not be overlooked: for all four major Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Baha’i), the truth of their historical claims is all-important; if their historical claims are not true, then their very foundations are undermined. In contrast, it does not matter even remotely whether Socrates actually existed as a historical person, as it is his ideas, not who he was, that matters. I.e., his nonexistence would have no effect on the validity of the ideas attributed to him. The same is true to a lesser degree of the historical Buddha for Buddhists: even if the historical Buddha never existed, Buddhists would by and large still believe the teachings attributed to him were true. However, whether Jesus actually existed in historical time makes all the difference in the world for Christianity’s truth or falsehood, as does whether Muhammad existed for Islam’s truth or falsehood.
I believe Jesus existed because of references to him in works by Roman historians, but even these are not concrete proof that he actually did. I do not expect written communicators in the first century CE to have reported on “every claim made by rabbis and messianic zealots,” but the supposed extraordinary events described in the Gospels, such as the resurrection, ascension, dead saints appearing to people in Jerusalem, a great earthquake, the temple curtain tearing in two after Jesus was crucified, etc. would have been noticed by anybody in Jerusalem, including Romans present at the time (such as the centurion keeping watch over Jesus who supposedly said that Jesus was the Son of God). While I realize the Romans viewed Jerusalem as a backwater part of their empire, I still find it highly unlikely that Roman administrators and soldiers in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and supposed resurrection would not have noticed these extraordinary events and either recorded them (if they were literate, which I am aware most weren’t) or told somebody who was literate about them so they would record them.
For the claim that Jesus was resurrected, the only sources we have are the purported eyewitness accounts of the authors of the canonical gospels and a passage from The Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus that is almost certainly a later interpolation (all of this is explained in my book). The reason I doubt the historical reliability of the canonical gospels is that their authors (whoever they are) claim that one of the most extraordinary events in world history happened before their very eyes (i.e., the resurrection), and yet nobody else seems to have noticed. I would also point out that Jesus is not the only person who comes back from the dead in the canonical gospels (for accounts of two separate instances, see John 11:1-44 and Matthew 27:51-53). However, as I have never witnessed anybody come back from the dead, nor have I ever heard a reliable account of this happening, I am not willing to take the word of the gospel writers that they witnessed this.
I am particularly not willing to take the canonical gospels at their word when they cannot even agree with each other about many of the details of Jesus’ life. For example, they do not agree on the number of generations between Jesus and David or who Jesus’ ancestors going back to David even were or even who his paternal grandfather was (on a related note, if Jesus was really conceived by the Holy Spirit, it is hard to see the relevance of this supposed lineage), whether it was Mary or Joseph who was visited by an angel to announce Jesus’ coming birth, the time at which Jesus was crucified, and the wording of the message allegedly written on the cross, among other things. The canonical gospels also often fail to include seemingly significant details found in the others. To give just a few examples: the virgin birth, which is missing from Mark and John; the wedding in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine, which is only in John; dead saints emerging from their tombs and appearing to people in Jerusalem after Jesus died, which is only in Matthew; and the “negative beatitudes,” which are only found in Luke. On top of that, the best historical evidence suggests that the canonical gospels were not written until at least 40 to 60 years after Jesus’ death.
The claim that the improbability of the Christian Message is grounds for believing it
“It is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.” So said Tertullian, a third century apologist who believed Christians should avoid all engagement with the prevalent intellectual currents in the Greco-Roman world at the time. While I do not believe this reviewer shares Tertullian’s hostility to philosophy, I believe he is making a similar argument.
I fully admit that this argument never made sense to me. A lot of things are improbable. It is improbable that millions of years ago a giant alien dictator paralyzed billions of citizens of an intergalactic confederacy, placed them around the bases of volcanoes across the earth, detonated hydrogen bombs inside the volcanoes, and thereafter forced the souls of those who were killed to watch a movie. While Burkhardt claims the incarnation of Jesus would be the least probable event imaginable, I venture that this story is even less probable still, as are many other stories that can be found in the world’s religions and mythologies. Yet I have no inclination to believe any of these even more improbable stories are true merely because they are improbable.
I will also note in passing that Christianity is not the only tradition, not even the only monotheistic tradition, that teaches the existence of incarnations of the deity.
My standards of interpretation of the Bible, the claim that my account of the Christian Message is an “ugly caricature,” and why I focus so much attention on hell
Burkhardt claims that my account of the Christian Message is an “ugly caricature.” However, I believe the section of his review entitled “The Author’s Rules of Interpretation” is a caricature of my hermeneutic.
At the very least, my book is no more a caricature of the Christian message than any major Christian apologetic work such as those by C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Josh McDowell, and Ravi Zacharias. Apologists such as these emphasize certain aspects of the Christian message and deemphasize others, just as I do. I describe all of the basic premises and core teachings of Christianity as I understand them in the first chapter, but my arguments focus on a few specific areas, namely those areas that I believe provide the strongest grounds for not believing the Christian Message.
As I write in my book, my arguments against Christianity are against those varieties of Christianity that attempt to interpret the Bible literally, or at least make a good faith effort to base their beliefs on the intentions of its authors. In other words, in interpreting the Bible I leave room for metaphorical interpretation if that is what the authors appear to have intended. I admit that I probably should have emphasized this a bit more strongly than I did, but I take this approach in interpreting several passages myself. For example, on page 60 of Chapter 8 I point out that the Greek word kolasin, which is one of the two component words of the phrase in Matthew 25:46 typically translated as “eternal punishment” or “everlasting punishment” (kolasin is the word translated as “punishment”), literally refers to the pruning of trees, but I proceed to argue that based on the overall context, the passage in which it is found (the “Judgment of the Nations” or “The Sheep and the Goats”) teaches that unregenerate sinners (that is, all people who do not accept Jesus as their lord and savior) will undergo everlasting suffering or torment after the Last Judgment (and I will point out that this passage teaches that professing Christians who fail to help their neighbors in need will suffer the same fate).
I admit that I did not examine every single Biblical or Christian traditional claim in detail, as this was never my aim, nor would it have been practical. My aim was to account for the essential ideas of Christianity, which I believe did in the first chapter, and I spent most of the rest of the book attempting to refute those essential ideas, particularly those that (1) rest on historical or empirical claims or (2) provide grounds for disbelieving the Christian Message in the absence of overwhelming historical or empirical evidence for its truth.
In my understanding, hell is one of the central ideas of Christianity. It is a central idea in Christianity because it is a natural corollary of the teaching of sin, which I understand to be the very foundation of the Christian message, the sine qua non without which it would not have even been necessary for God (as Christians understand him) to incarnate. That is the main reason I focus so much attention on the teaching of hell and is also why I spend a significant amount of time discussing the teaching of sin and its variations.
I never claim that hell is literally boiling and literally contains sulfur, and my hermeneutic does not require that I do. In fact, I go into great detail about competing explanations of what hell refers to, including detailed discussions of other major interpretations of hell, particularly universalism and annihilationism. But I do argue that the New Testament teaches that hell as a state of eternal damnation or everlasting punishment literally exists because I believe that a careful reading shows that is what the New Testament in fact teaches. Here the reader will have to judge for himself or herself whether I am right.
I believe the teaching of hell is the very worst teaching in the Bible and I focus so much attention on it because I really do believe it, along with the teaching of sin which is its corollary, overrides all of the parables and moral teachings of Jesus and all of the passages about God’s love in the New Testament, particularly since according to the New Testament Jesus himself is the primary, though certainly not the only, source of teachings about hell. I explicitly make this argument in my book, as well.
Even if the teaching of hell does not override the rest of Jesus’ teachings and mission, I still believe the argument from hell is a very strong argument for rejecting the Christian Message in the absence of overwhelming historical and empirical evidence for its truth.
Furthermore, even if hell as a state of everlasting punishment didn’t exist, I would still find the Christian Message objectionable because of its teaching of sin, which I argue is a false teaching on multiple occasions throughout the book with explanations of why I do, and (what I consider) its impractical and psychologically harmful moral teachings. I make both of these arguments in my book and will not repeat them here.
Contrary to what the reviewer writes, I do not assume that the Bible speaks with one voice. I write that it must necessarily be infallible and inerrant if it is revealed (or inspired) by God, but this does not mean I think it speaks with one voice. While there is an argument to be made that it ought to speak with one voice if it truly is revealed and inspired by the unique creator of the universe, I do not believe nor do I argue that it does speak with one voice.
The reviewer is correct that I never considered the possibility of progressive revelation or any similar hermeneutic. I will not say that interpreting the Bible as a progressive revelation is a “sugarcoated” or “copout” interpretation of the Bible. These colloquial terms are not appropriate descriptors of an overall method of interpretation of the Bible, but I do believe they are appropriate for certain specific interpretations. In fact, in my book I only use these colloquial terms to describe specific interpretations of specific passages, the former (“sugarcoated”) primarily to describe teachings about love in the books attributed to John and interpretations of hell that attempt to lessen the impact of what the Bible teaches, the latter (“copout”) to appeals to God’s authority and the claim that God’s ways are not our ways and are too mysterious for people to understand, which in my experience is usually made by believers when they can no longer cogently defend their views.
I will say that one particular interpretation of hell that Burkhardt offers, “extreme regret or absence of light,” is absolutely not supported by the New Testament, not even by an extremely flexible interpretation of the passages concerning damnation. Upon my reading, the New Testament teaches that hell is a state or place of everlasting punishment, that Jesus and/or the saints will determine who ends up there, and that God will cause people to end up there.
In any case, while I agree that language is, as the reviewer writes, “polysemous and flexible,” I do think that there are definite limitations to how many meanings a word can have. And I think that the overall meanings I find in the words of the Bible as articulated in the first chapter and repeated throughout the book represent a fair and accurate account of the Christian Message, not a caricature. In fact, I think any reader, whether a believing Christian or not, would have great difficulty arguing that what I characterize as the “basic premises and core teachings of Christianity” are not the central or most essential teachings of Christianity.
With respect to the question of whether what I wrote is a caricature, in the end I would simply ask the reader to read Genesis and the New Testament and judge for himself or herself.
Other issues brought up in the review
I saved my personal story for the end of the book because I do not believe the negative psychological impact Christianity had on me has any bearing on whether its basic premises and core teachings are true or false. I started rationally examining whether Christianity was true because I realized that my negative experiences did not constitute evidence for its falsehood. If Christianity is true, I am willing to believe it no matter how much I hate it or how miserable it makes me.
I have a few other minor quibbles with the review. I do mention the Holy Spirit in my book. In fact, I specifically refer to it as one of the basic premises and core teachings of Christianity the first chapter. True, I don’t mention the possibility of reading the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as I have no evidence that the Holy Spirit exists and thus do not believe the Holy Spirit exists. I admit that I rely on the printed words of the English translations I have read and the original Greek and Hebrew words I have researched, nothing more. But I maintain that if the Bible really is divinely inspired, it should be possible to understand its contents whether or not one has been saved/received the Holy Spirit.
Let me make one other thing absolutely clear: I do not hate believing Christians. I believe they are mistaken and I would like to change their minds, but my objection is to the teachings of Christianity, not those who believe in them. As stated in my book, I advocate complete political toleration for and the right to hold all beliefs (though not necessarily all actions based on those beliefs), including all Christian beliefs. And I will add that I am perfectly comfortable discussing religious, political, and other controversial topics with friends. A friendship where one cannot discuss these topics, and cannot vehemently disagree with the other person and yet remain friends is, in my opinion, hardly a friendship at all.
I will add one more thing: I would be perfectly willing to convert back to Christianity if I were provided convincing evidence for the truth of its key teachings. I do not demand that this evidence be of the sort that could be tested in a lab or subjected to repeated observations and peer review. But I would have to somehow experience the things that Christianity claims to be true first hand. If I had such an experience and I became convinced, I would reconvert. In fact, if I had persuasive evidence, I would believe Christianity was true despite not wanting to. I am perfectly willing to believe something to be true even though I don’t want it to be. To use a silly analogy: I used to be a big baseball fan. My favorite team was the New York Mets. My least favorite was the New York Yankees. I hated the Yankees with every fabric of my being, and I certainly didn’t want it to be true that they were the most successful franchise in Major League Baseball history with by far the most World Series titles. But it was (and is) true whether I wanted it to be or not. In the same way, I would be willing to believe in Christianity if it was true even though I freely admit that I hate what I understand to be the central teachings of Christianity with every fabric of my being.
Conclusion and segue into my post on sin
Though I have some issues with the review, I think the statements “The Story of Christ is not true” and “The Message of Christ is bad” are fairly accurate general summaries of my main points. I would also add, “Sin does not exist and it is not a good explanation for why people are frequently cruel to each other and why there is so much suffering and hardship in the world” as one of my main contentions for why Christianity is false. While the reviewer does not discuss this point, it is just as central to my critique of Christianity as any other, though perhaps I did not discuss it extensively enough in my book. Thus, I have added a post about it on my weblog.