By Paul Williams (Paul an English convert to Islam)
I just want to briefly explain why I am no longer a Christian when I became a Christian some years ago in my local Baptist church not far from here.
I became a born-again evangelical Christian and I had a born-again experience but I can tell you the exact date, the month of the year that I said the Jesus prayer and I became a born-again Christian and many wonderful things happened.
I had many extraordinary experiences of a kind of spiritual even supernatural kind and but that wasn’t the end of the story of course and what happened well you know I developed a powerful relationship with god.
I became aware of the universe as a creation of god a divine creation. the scriptures the holy Bible the old and New Testament became very important to me and they came alive to me in that way that they do for Christians but also a parallel process started to happen and this was the achilles heel of my faith and it was almost from the beginning because I took a great interest in the Bible of course and read it avidly and with an expectation that God would speak to me and I felt that God did on occasions and that it would be relevant to my life and I applied the Bible to many problems and it was great but at the same time I couldn’t help but notice various things, various problems and problems which I assumed at the time was the devil trying to undermine my trust in god’s word.
So I look for solutions to these problems and the way I did it was to think about them at it and to turn to biblical commentaries written by Christians to help explain to me, you know what the solution was and thus overcome the problems and move forward but it wasn’t as simple as that.
Yes some of the problems did have solutions and I happily moved on but others I kind of dug myself into a deeper and deeper hole and I discovered other problems because scholars would reference other issues and I think oh my goodness me I didn’t know that was a problem and that became an issue for me and as I said, develop this parallel existence, on the one hand, I was a committed Christian I believe Jesus was God.
I believed in the trinity, the incarnation the atonement. I believed in the inerrancy of scripture. I was an evangelical of course, a protestant conservative, and on the other hand, I was becoming away through my own innocent reading of the New Testament particularly of various big problems which as I said I thought were spiritual in origin caused by the devil trying to undermine my faith.
I don’t believe that any more of course because these problems I was stumbling across are well known to biblical scholars and have been discussed by them for the last 150 to 200 years. I just stumbled across issues that were well known in the world of biblical studies and of course unless there’s some kind of massive satanic conspiracy you know in all the universities and seminaries in the world. these are real issues and I think of course they are real issues.
What are they? Well, there’s a number of them. I’ll just give you a couple of examples and then I’m going to read from a book by a leading Church of England priest, a biblical scholar and dean of Kings College here in London, Professor Biblical Interpretation. A very respected scholar and he discusses some of these issues in a very concise and helpful way. Just to share with you what happened to me when I also wrestle with these issues and it led me ultimately to part company with many, not all, but many of the fundamental teachings of Christianity because I still believe a lot of Christianity is true. obviously a belief in one God, belief in the creation of created order. That Jesus was the Messiah sent by God, the prophets I believe in, the day of judgment, I believe in angels and demons and the resurrection of the dead and so the list is very long. Actually, it’s like a huge iceberg under the water. There’s so much I still just accept is there. it’s just a little bit on top principally to do with things like incarnation, Trinity and atonement which I can no longer accept for historical and philosophical and theological reasons.
So what were some of the issues? Well, I stumbled across much to my horror in a way through my reading of the New Testament. The clear impression that many people including Jesus, including Paul, James, John, and others expected the end of the world soon, very soon – imminently within the lifetime of people then living. I looked into this and tried to find a way to reconcile this with the rather obvious fact that we are living 2,000 years later and the end hasn’t come any time soon and there’s a prospect of endless millennia ahead. How can this be the case? There seems to be a mistake here made by Jesus, Paul, James and John etc and the more I looked into this problem, it’s technically called eschatology or the imminent parousia (end of times). The more I realized that in fact there was a mistake, at least according to the scriptures of the New Testament that the way they spoke. Jesus is made to have made a mistake and Paul clearly makes a mistake.
Now, these are not moral errors. They’re not bad people because they made a mistake. Paul expected the end of the world. You know he was wrong. He was a human being. He was wrong about many things in fact.
So that was one serious issue. The other serious issue, which is kind of connected, is the Gospels. This is something that I didn’t stumble across in my reading of the New Testament but I learned and discovered through reading scholarship biblical scholars, discovered that the Gospel of John is seen as much less historical than the other three Gospels and that’s a real shame because the Gospel of John has some of the juiciest most robust most clear statements of Jesus divinity anywhere in the New Testament. where Jesus says according to John, I am the light of the world or before Abraham was I am or I am the resurrection and the life etc etc now all these wonderful statements are only found in one Gospel. the very last to be written. they’re not found anywhere else and scholars are pretty unanimous with one or two exceptions across the whole world, the leading scholars including Christians (most scholars are Christians) that Jesus, the actual historical Jesus 2000 years ago didn’t say these things and the reasons why are historical and textual and theological I’m not going to go into them but the fact is that is the case and I was shocked to discover that was the case.
Now, what did that mean to me? it meant that I felt that I could no longer rely on John – the Gospel of John to give me the teaching of Jesus. the true history as it happened, as it really happened Teaching of Jesus. I felt that the experts, the historians as I say, the vast majority of whom are Christians had taken the Gospel away from me and I can no longer rely on it as reliable, as authentic. so that was unfortunate.
There are other issues I’m not going to go into them but what they did was that the edifice of my Christian faith began to crack and the foundation basically started to crumble and my faith started to fall over. now this is at the same time of course as being a believing Christian and believing all these doctrines of the inerrancy of scripture, the deity of Christ, the atonement, the incarnation, the trinity – father son holy spirit and all that – perfection of the Bible. I was discovering the Bible was very imperfect that it contained errors and in fact, some of the things I took as history and is true were perhaps not really history or true at least in terms of something that could be traced back to Jesus. so I became increasingly schizophrenic if that’s the right word. on the one hand I went to church, I believed, I prayed – on the other hand, my faith was in crisis and it wasn’t getting any better, it was getting worse and worse and worse and I did study this at university as well and which didn’t help in some ways my faith, my conservative faith. but that’s another story I’m not going to go into that
I want to share with you some words from this book “Jesus Now and Then” by Richard A. Burridge and Graham Gould. Richard Burridge as I said, is dean of King’s College, one of the great theological colleges in Britain. he’s a professor of Biblical Interpretation. He’s also a Church of England priest. He’s a believing Christian and he wrote this book with Gould who is a lecturer also at King’s College in Patristics – that is the early fathers. So they co-wrote this book. I do recommend it actually. This is what they say and I have no reason to disagree with this but I want to share with you and give you a flavour of how serious Christian committed top-notch biblical scholars and experts understand the historical basis for their Christian faith and the problems they see. These are not enemies of Christianity – so this is page 195 they write :
To modern eyes, it is almost inevitable that the theologians of the early church will appear to have read scripture in a very naive way when they took it as evidence that Jesus was a divine person become human. In other words, the incarnation they took what to us seem like very vague hints in the old testament about the figure of the Messiah or the figure of Wisdom a personified quality of god in the old testament notably the book of proverbs and interpreted these as evidence that the old testament authors actually foresaw in considerable detail the life death and resurrection of Jesus.
So what they’re saying here is that these early theologians of the church and the bishops – whether it be Origen or Irenaeus or Totalian or Justin Martyr – quite a few of these very well-known names, they mined the Old Testament for hints or evidence or proofs about the coming of Jesus. God on earth, the Messiah, the incarnation
Alongside this prophetic proof of Jesus status as God’s Son or Messiah (which is expounded, for example in the works of Justin and Origen) the church fathers set a range of information about him – his miracles, his teaching, his authority over demons, and his power to forgive sins – and erected it into what to them was very clear proof that he was a divine being. Even then they were not finished, for they took the New Testament hints about Jesus’ pre-existence (for example in Colossians – Paul’s letter to colossians chapter 1 verse 15 and the Gospel of John 1. 1) and developed them with the aid of the Logos-doctrine of of Middle Platonist philosophy, into the fully fledged doctrine of Jesus as God’s creative Logos which in the second century became the basis of the doctrines of the Trinity and incarnation
Now this is heavy historical theology. I’m not necessarily going to unpack it all here. The doctrine of the trinity did not exist in the first century or the second century. What was what predominated I remember studying this at university was this Logos theology in the second-century. Logos is the Greek word meaning word or reason and it was identified as Jesus. This doctrine is heavily influenced by pagan philosophy. Plato’s ideas, the Greek philosopher from the 5th century BC
Modern readers of the Bible know much more than the writers of the early Church could possibly have done about the type of literature that is contained in the Bible, about the nature of metaphor, about the way in which beliefs about the Messiah accumulated, and the way in which Christian beliefs about Jesus developed over time, including the period of the New Testament itself.
So they’re saying here, that today because of our awareness and sensitivity of genre that’s the sense of the different kinds of literature that exists, we have to ask what kind of literature is this ? Is it poetry ? is it a metaphor ? is it history? is it a letter ? is it meant to be taken as unvarnished reporting ? or is it highly interpreted and so on and so on. We’re now much more sensitive to these issues, they say, than the early fathers were and also the sense that the understanding of Jesus in the early Church developed and changed. It wasn’t static from the beginning.
We are aware of how the New Testament presentation of Jesus was shaped by beliefs about him, so that it cannot be used as a purely objective historical evidence for his life and status.
so they’re saying here’s a commonplace in scholarship that the beliefs of the writers, say of the Gospels, the beliefs that they had shaped the way they spoke about Jesus. So the Gospels tell us as much really about the author’s beliefs about Jesus as they do about Jesus out there as a person who they are describing. So they’re not objective in the modern sense of being disinterested accounts of a life they are motivated by faith and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but we need to be aware of that when we read these texts and not just assume perhaps naively that they are giving us objective truth. They continue and give an example
For example, we know that some of the Gospel statements that Jesus fulfill prophecy – and the events in his life that are alleged to have done so- were probably created in the light of the belief that he was the Messiah, and cannot be used as evidence to support the belief (for example, the story of Jesus flight into Egypt in Matthew chapter 2 verse 13 to 15.)
Now without going into all of what they’re getting at here I’ll just very briefly mention for Matthew, it is commonly accepted is presenting Jesus as a new Moses. As a second Moses and so the Gospel portrays Jesus in that way :
- Who was it that gave a sermon that addressed Israel on Mount Sinai? Well, it was Moses. Who was it that addressed the crowds on the sermon on the mount? Well it was the second Moses, Jesus
- Who came out of Egypt in the exodus? That was Moses. Who came out of Egypt ? it was Jesus
and there are so many parallels between Moses and Jesus which are uniquely found in this Gospel but no other Gospel. Luke for example does not have Jesus going off to Egypt and this Burridge and Gould say, these stories – well the story of Jesus flight into Egypt and then out of Egypt again are probably created they say in the light of the belief that he was the Messiah and (but they don’t say it) but a second Moses
so they continue
Unless modern Christians are going to pretend that they live in the second or fourth century, and to take Scripture exactly as it was taken by the tradition prior to the Enlightenment, it is difficult to accept that there is as much historical basis in Scripture for believing that Jesus was divine as the early Church commonly thought. For this reason alone, the liberal project of refusing to be too dogmatic about claiming that Jesus was divine seems amply justified.
This extract is part of a chapter which is talking about modern understandings of Jesus and talking about how the liberal understanding of Jesus actually can help us to sort out fact from fiction in the Gospels.
You see how dangerous this is if you are a fundamentalist Christian because it really brings you up against the question of the historical or unhistorical nature of the Gospels in the light of an intelligent critical understanding of the texts and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So just to end it really here because I could go on and on for hours like this, a lot of what I believed as a Christian I still believe as I said – the iceberg is there – vast areas of belief I still hold in fact most of what I believed I still believe but on certain crucial doctrines, crucial beliefs I don’t.
I don’t believe Jesus was Yahweh, I don’t believe that he was the incarnate son of god, I don’t believe he was the second person of Trinity, and the idea of atonement, this idea of a human sacrifice or of any kind is necessary for God to forgive us and reconcile us. I think is totally unacceptable on historical and moral and theological grounds.
so I reject that now and I have obviously for some time so that’s why I’m no longer a Christian but I suppose you could say I’m still half a Christian and I’m what I mean by that is the good things in Christianity I accept – the things I no longer believe in I don’t accept obviously.
So that’s what it’s worth my story and I must say that there are many many people who can give a similar story. I know that the people who were with me in the first-year class at university when I started to study Christianity a Bachelor Divinity Degree, University of London. I think most of us were conservative Christian evangelicals probably more Catholics as well. I’m told that by the end of the course only one person was still evangelical or traditional at all and even they were quite liberal because we had all been forced to face the facts. The historical facts, the literary facts, the archaeology, the facts of Biblical scholarship. What they have uncovered and shown us about the scriptures and about historical theology, about the historical Jesus, about well you name it, it’s a very long list and that’s why many of us lost our faith. Some of us clung to bits of it anyway.
So there we go – that’s why I’m no longer a Christian I hope you found that interesting. Till next time