The Role of the Bible in Destroying Faith

Here’s the link to this article.

By David Madison at 5/12/2023

Deceptive translators don’t want readers to see the problems 

There has been a meme floating about on the Internet: “If you ever feel worthless, remember, there are people with theology degrees.” These degrees are granted by a huge variety of religious schools, ranging from fundamentalist Protestant to Vatican-loyal Catholic. So among those holding these degrees—what else would we expect?—there is substantial disagreement regarding what god is like, how he/she/it expects people to behave, how he/she/it wants to be worshipped. This is one of the reasons Christianity has splintered into thousands of quarreling brands.

This confusion and strife can be traced to many sources (e.g., personality conflicts, egos, desire for power and control), but the Bible must take a large share of the blame. It is a deeply flawed document that shows no evidence whatever of divine inspiration: it contains so many contradictions, so much incoherence and bad theology. Thus the irony that the Bible itself—carefully read, that is—has destroyed faith for so many people. Mark Twain argued that the “best cure for Christianity is reading the Bible.” Andrew Seidel has pointed out that “the road to atheism is littered with Bibles that have been read cover to cover.”

Even a casual reading of the Bible can be shocking: “God so loved the world,” yet he got so mad at humans that he destroyed all human and animal life—except for the crowd on Noah’s boat. Jesus suggested that people should forgive seventy-times seven, yet assured his disciples that any village that did not welcome their preaching would be destroyed—and that hatred of family was a requirement for following him. This is what I mean by incoherence and bad theology. Anyone with common sense can figure it out.  

These are items that are visible on the surface, and it gets worse; a closer examination reveals deeper problems. Devout Bible scholars have been aware for a long time that this is the case, and secular scholars don’t hesitate to expose the ways—unnoticed by the laity—in which the Bible itself destroys the faith that so many hold dear. On 1 May 2023, an article written by John Loftus was published on The Secular Web: Does God Exist? A Definitive Biblical Case. This is a must read. Bookmark the link for future reference. I printed the article to go in a binder of important essays. If you can manage to get Christian family and friends to do some homework on the Bible, this piece should be included.   

Loftus invites his readers to see what is actually there in the Bible:

“What is almost always overlooked in debating the existence of the theistic god is that such a divine being has had a complex evolution over the centuries from Elohim, to Yahweh, to Jesus, and then to the god of the philosophers, without asking if the original gods had any merit…If believers really understood the Bible, they wouldn’t believe in any of these gods.”

Theologians and apologists, priests and preachers, have worked so hard over the centuries to clean up the god(s) that we find in the Bible, so that the faith today—that so many people are comfortable embracing—has a noble, positive flavor. If only the devout would bother to think carefully about their most common, cherished Bible texts. For example: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Just what is god’s name? An easy answer would be, “Well, Jesus, of course.” But before Jesus, what was it? As Loftus mentions, one of them was Elohim, but pious translators sense their god having a name might make it look like he was just one of many of the pagan gods. And that was exactly the case, as Loftus notes: “When we take the Bible seriously, we discover a significant but unsuccessful cover-up about the gods that we find in the Bible, who evolved over the centuries through polytheism to henotheism to monotheism.” 

When I printed the Loftus essay, it came to twenty pages, seven of which are about Elohim—and most of this content never comes to the attention of devout laypeople. Loftus offers a careful analysis of the first two verses of Genesis 1, which are commonly translated something like this:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the surface of the abyss, and the Spirit of God was moving over the waters.”

He points out that this is a more accurate rendering:

“Elohim made the skies and dry land, beginning with land that was without form and void, with darkness covering the surface of the chaos, and the wind of Elohim hovering over the waters,” while noting that “the original grammar is a bit difficult to translate. If nothing else, consider this a slightly interpretive translation using corrected wording.”

Loftus notes seven elements of this text that are commonly misunderstood, e.g., there is nothing here about the beginning of time, or creation out of nothing. Nor is the claim by contemporary theologians that an all-powerful cosmic god did the deed. Believers want to assume this was the case, and translators cooperate in promoting this deception, i.e., “In the beginning, God…” But the text says that Elohim was the initiator of this drama. 

Just who was this Elohim? “The Hebrew word Elohim is derived from the name of the Canaanite god El, a shortened version of which is El Elyon, or ‘God Most High.’” Well, there, don’t you have the grand god Christians want? No, far from it: “El was the head of the Canaanite pantheon of gods.” Loftus quotes scholar Mark S. Smith: 

“Archaeological data in the Iron I age suggests that the Israelite culture largely overlapped with and derived from Canaanite culture… In short, Israelite culture was largely Canaanite in nature.” (The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities of Ancient Israel, 2002, pp. 6-7.)

The influence of Elohim-belief is reflected in so many of the names familiar to us in the Old Testament, e.g., Bethel, Michael, Daniel, and even Israel.

Elohim the tribal deity was imagined as we would expect of ancient writers who had no understanding whatever of the Cosmos. So it is silly to read the god imagined by modern believers into the Genesis story. Loftus describes the naïveté of these ancient theologians:

“Elohim showed no awareness of dinosaurs, nor the fact that the history of evolution has shown that 99.9% of all species have gone extinct, since evolution produces a lot of dead ends on its way to producing species that survive. Imagine that! On every day in Genesis 1 the supposed creator god Elohim knows nothing about the universe! … There is no excuse for a real creator to utterly fail a basic science class…There is no excuse for a real creator to mislead his creatures about something so important, which would lead generations of scientifically literate people away from the Christian religious faith and into damnation.”

Do things get any better with the other tribal deity who plays a major role in the Old Testament, namely Yahweh? Devout folks today can be forgiven if, when asked what god’s name is, they fail to answer, Yahweh. One of the most famous—and annoying—Christian cults proudly labels itself Jehovah’s Witnesses. That is, they know god’s name, as adjusted in English translation. Ancient Hebrew was written without vowels, and some of the consonants were flexible. Hence YHWH could also be JHVH. Plug in different vowels, and it becomes Jehovah instead of Yahweh. Even so, most of the devout—outside the Witness cult—wouldn’t right way agree that god’s name is Jehovah, let alone Yahweh.

One of the reasons for this, again, is that translators are eager to cover up the tribal god’s name, as Loftus points out:

“In the Old Testament, whenever you come across ‘the Lord Our God,’ or ‘the Lord God,’ or even ‘Lord,’ Christian translators have hidden the truth behind those words. It’s ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Yahweh your god.’” It’s easy to spot this coverup in the Revised Standard Version, which renders Yahweh as LORD, i.e., all capital letters. The ancient theologians who cobbled together the Old Testament were happy to put stories about Elohim right beside stories about Yahweh, e.g. the two creation stories in Genesis. 

Loftus devotes a full eight pages in this essay to Yahweh, making quite clear that this was indeed an inferior tribal deity. He presents four aspects of Yahweh that qualify him as a moral monster, especially his behavior in the story of Job: 

“In this story Yahweh lives in a separate palace in the sky and acts like a petty narcissistic king who would treat his subjects terribly simply because he could do so, just like any other despotic Mediterranean king they knew. Job was a pawn who was tortured for the pleasure of Yahweh and other sons of Elohim. At the end Yahweh doesn’t reveal why Job suffered, just that Job wasn’t capable of understanding why, so he was faulted for demanding an answer from the Almighty.”

Loftus also describes Yahweh’s guilt in terms of genocide, slavery, and child sacrifice—and limited power. Translators should be especially ashamed of labelling this deity LORD God: far from being omnipotent, its inferior status is obvious: “The LORD was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron” (Judges 1:19). 

Loftus is right: “Imagine that! An all-powerful god cannot defeat men in iron chariots! What could he do against tanks and fighter jets?”

In the final pages of the essay Loftus addresses the issue of Jesus as god. He had pointed out that Yahweh was depicted as having a body (in the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden, in his meetings with Moses), but the ultimate god-in-bodily-form would have to be Jesus. But the utter moral failures of Yahweh should encourage even the devout to admit, “No, that tribal god didn’t really exist.” But Loftus notes the devastating implications for the Jesus story:

“If the embodied moral monster Yahweh doesn’t exist, then the embodied god Jesus depicted in the Gospels doesn’t exist, either, since he’s believed to be the son of Yahweh, a part of the Trinity, and in complete agreement with everything that Yahweh said and did. That should be the end of it.” 

This is not necessarily to say that Jesus as an actual historical person didn’t exist—although there are serious arguments that cause us to doubt it. But Loftus is saying that Jesus as a god is based so thoroughly on Yahweh the flawed tribal deity; hence the divine nature of Jesus can’t be taken seriously.  He also notes that Justin Martyr, “the grandfather of the entire tradition of Christian apologetics,” sought to bolster the case for divine Jesus by arguing that he was like others who came before him:

“When we say that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing new from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Zeus.” 

Loftus notes Richard Miller’s summation of Justin Martyr’s approach: “Our new hero is just like your own, except ours is awesome, whereas yours are the deceptions of demons.” (Miller, Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity, 2017)  Sounds a lot like how Christians put down other brands of Christians!

In my article here last week, I argued that core Christian beliefs are a “clumsy blend of ancient superstitions, common miracle folklore, and magical thinking.” Christian theologians have worked so hard over the centuries to overcome this huge handicap. Their god must be the best, the ultimate—he must be an omni-god: all good, all powerful, all knowing. But these arguments plunge their faith into massive incoherence. Loftus notes that the “problem of horrendous suffering renders that god-concept extremely improbable to the point of refutation” (see his anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering). Their whole endeavor—creating the god of the philosophers—is a fool’s errand: “If theists think that an omni-everything God can legitimately be based on the Bible or its theology, they are fooling themselves. They are inventing their own versions of God, just like the ancient peoples in the Bible did.”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 

His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.

Revisiting Hitchens’ challenge and the value of hope

Here’s the link to this article.


APR 21, 2023

(image by Rafael Rex Felisilda from Unsplash)


Atheist Christopher Hitchens made a famous moral challenge to Christians. Let’s consider a second Christian response.

Reading Time: 6 MINUTES

Atheist Christopher Hitchens had a moral challenge for Christians: identify a moral action taken or a moral sentiment uttered by a believer that couldn’t be taken or uttered by a nonbeliever—something that only a believer could do and an atheist couldn’t. Part 1 is here.

A second apologist, this time a Catholic, also has some pushback for the Hitchens Challenge. Towards that end, he makes some nutty claims about the value of Christian hope.

Hitchens assumed—like many secular thinkers—that the only good is the good of social or material progress. An atheist can ladle soup in a soup kitchen—same as a Christian—so Christianity must not bring anything to the table….

It’s just not true that soup ladles are the sole measure of value. Catholicism, in particular, for all its good works and charity, has always rejected the idea that religion should aim for Utopia in this world or that it exists only to promote material wellbeing. “The Church is not an NGO,” as Pope Francis says frequently.

You got that right—the church is a terrible NGO! Americans give $100 billion annually to religion. The Roman Catholic Church’s annual intake worldwide must be far larger. The Catholic Church gives a lot of money to charity, but that’s only because it is huge. As a percentage of the Church’s expenses, I’m guessing that charity accounts for two percent. That’s an educated guess, but it’s just a guess because churches’ books are (unaccountably) closed (one wonders what they’re trying to hide).

With 98% overhead, they’d be the world’s most inefficient NGO.

This response sounds like, “Hitchens was right, but that’s okay because the church never claimed to produce progress.” I can accept that. (More on Christianity’s disinterest in social progress here.)

An aside on Mother (now Saint) Teresa

Back to the article: 

Perhaps this is why Hitchens hated Mother Theresa [sic] so much. (He wrote viciously about her.) He understood her mission better than many. He knew that her main goal was not social work, but mysticism. “We are misunderstood, we are misrepresented, we are misreported,” Mother Theresa said. “We are not nurses, we are not doctors, we are not teachers, we are not social workers. We are religious, we are religious, we are religious.”

That’s an embarrassing admission, that “her main goal was not social work, but mysticism,” but I appreciate the honesty. Now show me the check box that donors to Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had to mark to acknowledge that they understand that “We are not nurses, we are not doctors, we are not teachers, we are not social workers. We are religious.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars went into this charity, and an enormous fraction—I’m guessing most of it—was because the donors assumed that they were funding healthcare.

Hitchens might have hated Mother Teresa, but that would’ve been because of the disconnect between her public image as a healer and the reality of her homes for the sick being little more than comfortable places to die. Her charity received vast donations, but Forbes reported that “only seven percent of the donation received at Missionaries of Charity was used for charity.”

The greatest thing faith brings is hope

Nope, Teresa wasn’t focused on improving life here on earth.

Mother Theresa knew (and struggled with the fact) that the greatest value of religious faith in this life is not material wellbeing, but the gift of transcendent hope. That’s something a believer can give that Hitchens can never give.

Just to be argumentative, I could see an atheist claiming transcendent hope. Imagine a story about aliens coming to free us from our mortal coils as with the Heaven’s Gate cult. An extraterrestrial technology claim is as groundless a claim as a supernatural one (though less farfetched), but that could be a transcendent hope.

The key point isn’t that it’s transcendent hope but that it’s evidence-less hope, hope that can be in anything because it needn’t have evidence to support it.

But you’re right that atheists avoid giving groundless transcendent hope. Is that a problem? Science gives reality and grounded hope. Science is what’s working on cures for disease or ways to improve food yields. Science is where improvement comes from, and that’s where atheists usually get their hope.

Note the contrast. Christianity has put all its eggs in the “gift of transcendental hope” basket. It’s not like it’s simultaneously using its own methods to solve society’s problems. Christianity is static. A thousand years of Christianity’s “transcendent hope” in a desperate society gives you a thousand years of the same desperate society, while a thousand years of science can transform that society to one that is happy and healthy, one where groundless hope is much less needed.

Christianity can still flog its claims of a beautiful afterlife, but so what? Yes, it’s a remarkable, possibly desirable claim, but so what when there’s no evidence for it? Science has nothing to offer except a continually improving reality (and mountains of evidence that it delivers).

Faith, hope, and love are precisely the formula for happiness even in the midst of material deprivation.

Not when that faith, hope, and love paper over the actual problems in society. A life that is drugged to block out a horrible reality is a wasted life. I’m in no position to criticize someone who falls back on hope to endure a desperate life, but see how it directs our attention to feeling better and away from solving problems.

This was where Karl Marx was going with his observation that religion is the opium of the people. He was complimenting religion—it helps when society is in bad shape. But in the same way that opium only addresses the symptoms of a broken leg (you should still get medical treatment), religion only addresses the symptoms of bad society (you still need to fix that society).

The research of Gregory Paul is relevant here. He not only points out that religious belief correlates with worse social metrics, he also hypothesizes that poor social conditions cause more religion (more). In other words, when you see religion embraced by some subset of society, those people have social problems that need fixing.

How to get a better society

But even if nonbelievers do good things, there is still no reason to conclude that unbelief is the best stance for advancing material and social wellbeing. [One source compellingly argued,] “Human development is best advanced by transcendent hope.”

We’re just going to hope our way to an improved society? Not going to do anything about it, just hope? That reminds me of William Lane Craig’s portrayal of life here on earth as “the cramped and narrow foyer leading to the great hall of God’s eternity.” Wow—what an empty view of the one life we can all agree that we actually have.

Instead of making do, instead of wringing our hands in despair, perhaps we should get busy trying to improve the status quo by solving problems.

The fact is that atheists don’t ladle as much soup as Catholics. It was the Catholic Church that invented the modern institutions of benevolence.

You mean modern institutions of benevolence like Social Security, Medicare, medical insurance, and modern hospitals? The Catholic Church’s small contribution to charity is appreciated, but let’s not exaggerate it. U.S. churches together contribute a few billion dollars to the problem annually while the U.S. government and other institutions devote a few trillion dollars to the problem.

You could sneer at that and say that that’s just money returning to the taxpayers or the insured who provided it in the first place. And that’s true. But it’s still citizens caring for other citizens, redistributing wealth to help the orphans and widows that Jesus cared so much about. The Church in America makes a tiny fraction of this impact.

As for atheists vs. Catholics, even if Catholics do more per capita on assuaging pain (and I’m not sure that’s the case), atheists probably focus more on the fix-society side of the problem.

[The Catholic Church invented the modern institutions of benevolence] precisely because Catholics believe in the transcendent dignity of human beings.

This is what the Hitchens Challenge addresses. There is no benevolent act that Catholics do that couldn’t be performed by an atheist.

See also: When Christianity Was in Charge, This Is What We Got.

The Hitchens Challenge, part 2

Hitchens has more. Once you’ve seen that a nonbeliever can perform the same good moral actions that a believer can, think of the reverse: think of something terrible that only a believer would do or say. Now, lots of examples come to mind.

  • Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac (and modern apologists defending God’s indecipherable actions)
  • The Canaanite genocide
  • “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and witch burnings
  • “God hates fags” from Westboro Baptist Church
  • Flying a plane into a building or blowing yourself up to kill people you don’t like

Or any hateful or selfish conclusion justified by “because God (or the Bible) says” such as condemning homosexuality, blocking civil rights, limiting stem cell research, or dropping adoption services or hospital funding in protest of some law.

The article responds that, sure, religion can make people do evil things, but that’s “obviously true of secular ideology. All ideology is subject to abuse and manipulation.”

So we’re to believe that anything bad done in the name of Christianity is just an “abuse and manipulation” of Christianity and that Christianity, read correctly, doesn’t actually justify that? Who will be the judge to sift out the correct interpretations from the many incorrect ones?

The Bible is a sock puppet that can be made to justify just about anything. Let’s not pretend that there’s one objectively correct interpretation when thousands of Christian denominations squabble over the correct path.

The Hitchens Challenge remains a helpful illustration that Christianity has no moral upside (atheists can be just as moral as Christians) but has a big downside (religious belief can justify in the believer’s mind moral evil that an atheist would never imagine).

With or without religion,
you would have good people doing good things
and evil people doing evil things.
But for good people to do evil things,
that takes religion.
— Steven Weinberg

Hitchens’ Challenge: How well has it stood up?

Here’s the link to this article.


APR 04, 2023

hitchens challenge - old man with magnifying glass
(image by mari lezhava from Unsplash)


Atheist Christopher Hitchens made a famous moral challenge to Christians. Let’s consider two Christian responses.

Reading Time: 3 MINUTES

Identify a moral action taken or a moral sentiment uttered by a believer that couldn’t be taken or uttered by a nonbeliever—something that only a believer could do and an atheist couldn’t.

This was Christopher Hitchens’ famous moral challenge. He said that he had never been given a satisfactory answer.

Amy Hall from Greg Koukl’s Stand to Reason ministry thinks she is up to the challenge. Let’s take a look.

1. Hitchens misunderstands the theist’s point

[Hitchens thinks the Christian is saying] that without God, we couldn’t know right from wrong, when the actual objection is that there wouldn’t be any right or wrong.

I believe Hitchens was responding to the assumption that being a Christian provided some moral advantage. (And, according to Christianity, it does: “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin” (1 John 5:18).)

And if you want to argue that morality exists only because God put it there, that needs some evidence. You’ve provided none (more on Christians’ inability to defend the claim of objective morality here).

2. The Challenge is unanswerable

This is a clever observation: if Hitchens the atheist is the judge of the Hitchens Challenge, the Christian can’t win because he decides what is moral.

There might be certain acts that only theists would recognize as being moral. Atheists, not recognizing those acts as being good, would not attempt to do them as moral acts.

The first problem is that this undercuts another popular Christian apologetic argument. What’s wrong with Hitchens as judge—don’t you say that morality is objective? If morality is objective (defined by apologist William Lane Craig as “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not”) and we humans can reliably access those values, Hitchens or any honest atheist would be as good a judge as anyone.

Since it is logically impossible to give an answer that will satisfy Hitchens, he may as well ask us to draw him a square circle and then declare himself the winner when we fail. In the end, his challenge is nothing but a rhetorical trick, and it should be exposed and dismissed as such. Hitchens should never get away with even asking it, let alone demanding we give him an “acceptable” answer in order to defend theism.

I’m reminded of the lawyer’s maxim, “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. When neither is on your side, pound the table.” There’s a lot of table pounding here along with the demand that the Challenge be dismissed as inadmissible.

The resolution is simple: insist that objective, unbiased third parties must judge this Challenge. If Christians like those from Stand to Reason believe that objective moral facts can be reliably found, they can find judges who are infallible at finding objective morality. Prove to everyone that they are reliable with public tests. Now we have judges that everyone admits are reliable, and Hall’s concern is satisfied.

As it happens, there is an answer to Hitchens’s question—one that seemed obvious to me immediately—and it illustrates perfectly the problem with the challenge. The highest moral good a person can do is to worship the living, true, sovereign God—to love Him with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. Not only will no atheist ever do this, no atheist can do this.

That’s the pinnacle of morality? It’s an odd definition of morality that has nothing to do with doing good to living beings, but I guess Christians can define their dogma as they choose. And that’s the point: this is dogma that is specific to Christians. Our objective, unbiased third party judges would reject this. (More on how praise applied to God makes no sense here.)

Now it looks like it’s you who’s playing the rhetorical trick.

If we all share Adam’s sin, we must all have the moral wisdom of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. How then can atheists not agree with you that worship is the highest moral good?

Let’s return to the Challenge. Hitchens was simply saying that Christians can claim no moral high ground over atheists and that Christianity brings nothing moral to the table that wasn’t already part of humanity’s social interaction. God pretends to generously gives morality to humans, but, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, it was theirs all along.

Concluded in part 2 with one more Christian response.

If there is a God,
He will have to beg my forgiveness.
—  written on a wall in
Mauthausen concentration camp

How Christians reframe prayer to sound exciting and effective

For decades, Christians have lamented their inability to pray regularly. And for decades, they’ve tried dishonest reframing to make prayer sound infinitely more exciting and effective than it really is.

Avatar photoby CAPTAIN CASSIDY

JAN 20, 2023


Reading Time: 7 MINUTES

If there’s one universal complaint I’ve heard from Christians, one monolithic sore spot that seems to affect almost all of them, it is their inability to establish prayer habits. Even the most fervent and gung-ho of them willingly admit that their prayer lives are lacking.

But instead of stressing the real-world good of cultivating such a habit, Christians tend to try to drill down harder on the imaginary aspects of what they’re doing.

Prayer 101

Religious people call the process of talking to their god(s) prayer. Christians almost universally believe that prayer works all kinds of miracles. Their Bible commands them to pray without ceasing. In the gospels, Jesus is often seen praying and admonishing his followers to pray.

In the modern day, Christians believe that their god actually listens to their prayers. Many even believe that he responds to them in some way: giving them comfort, answering their questions, telling them what to do next, and more. They’ve even defined different kinds of prayer:

  • Praise and adoration
  • Petition (asking for stuff)
  • Intercession (asking for stuff still, but for someone else)
  • Confession (apologizing for stuff so they don’t go to Hell)
  • Thanksgiving (for the stuff they think their god did for them)

In times of great stress, Christians learn that they should pray for help and comfort. (I recently saw The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). One hostage character prayed almost the entire way through the movie. This wasn’t particularly played for laughs.)

But Christians also learn that they should pray all the rest of the time too, and to cultivate what they call a prayer life. Their leaders teach them that prayer is a sublime and fulfilling experience—a sort of red Bat-Phone call straight to Heaven.

And the problem: Christians tend to neglect prayer

Despite centuries of consistent education on this topic, Christians don’t pray much at all. A 2021 Pew Research survey found that the number of Christians claiming to pray daily fell from 58% in 2007 to 45% in 2021. Meanwhile, the number of people saying they seldom or never pray rose from 18% in 2007 to 32% in 2021. Those are some serious shifts!

I use the word “claiming” up there on purpose. I’m pretty sure that Christians not only vastly inflate how much prayer they do, but that they also count any kind of prayer as prayer. That means quick blessings over their meals, ritualistic requests for divine protection before they start driving anywhere, or the brief little prayers they say over social media entreaties. These are simple magical invocations, no different from Wiccans saying “so mote it be.” And they’re certainly not what Christian leaders mean when they talk about cultivating a prayer life.

I can absolutely assure you that 45% of Americans are not actually getting on their knees in their war room to pray for hours on end for Republicans to win the next election and Aunt Nancy’s Stage IV cancer to go into spontaneous remission—much less to tell Jesus for hours at a time how wonderful he is.

Even in the most fervent evangelical circles, it’s always perfectly safe to lament one’s neglect of prayer. Usually, this confession prompts everyone listening to nod along in chagrined silence.

The stakes for neglecting prayer

One evangelical site, The Gospel Coalition (TGC), understands exactly what the stakes are here:

It’s shameful but true. Christians have long struggled to exercise their most astounding privilege: permission to approach the throne of grace and talk to God, communicating with the One who makes and rules the world, who creates and redeems, who loves with an everlasting love that has overcome the power of sin, death, and the Devil. Though such a privilege takes our breath away when rightly understood, it is all-too-often neglected, taken for granted, and performed as if what we profess about God isn’t true.The Gospel Coalition

That last bit is the most telling: “performed as if what we profess about God isn’t true.”

Whatever Christians say they believe about prayer, their actual behavior reveals the truth. They’re well aware that prayer doesn’t actually spark miracles, get them tangible help in their lives, or offer them any gods standing by to take their calls—much less waiting on pins and needles to respond to them.

But their writer shoots himself in the foot by making a testable truth claim about the results of regular long-form prayer:

Imagine what would happen if we inched our way closer to prayer without ceasing. Imagine if we cultivated the faith, godly discipline, and habit of communicating with God as if he really were with us all the time, ruling our lives and our world in the way Scripture says.The Gospel Coalition

If only. But he’s right about one thing:

We must imagine this result, because there really aren’t any real-world examples he can point out to us.

Why Christians spend so little time on prayer, according to Christians

There’s no shortage of guesses in the Christ-o-sphere about why Christians have such a problem with prayer. One pastor begins his list of guesses with the usual confession:

Over the years I have been amazed at the paltry desire I’ve felt to pray. I am especially aware of this aversion just prior to the times that I’ve specifically set aside to pray, whether in private or with others.Daniel Henderson

His guesses about why this is the case include demons and Bad Christians™, of course:

  1. “The independence of the flesh.” (In Christianese, the flesh means the material world, our bodies, and our very human desires and motivations.)
  2. “The relentless attack of the enemy.” (In Christianese, the enemy always means demons. They are—as Umberto Eco once defined fascism so well—both enormously powerful and ridiculously weak.)
  3. “The busyness of our modern lives.” (He name-drops Charles Spurgeon, who gaslit evangelicals for decades to come by defining prayer as “a saving of time.”)
  4. “The unpleasant memory of previous experiences.” (He goes on to explain that anyone who turns Christians off to prayer meetings is just a Bad Christian™ who has forgotten what Original First-Century Christianity is all about.)

Overall, his guesses can be found repeated all throughout the Christ-o-sphere. TGC adds an interesting new guess in their own post: “Surely,” he asserts, “this has a great deal to do with our lack of understanding about the nature of prayer.” (Even his own cited sources don’t come close to supporting that guess!)

The solution: Reframing prayer as exciting!

As you might have noticed already, Christians have a couple of different strategies for dealing with this lack of prayer in their ranks. TGC’s writer thought that the solution was simply (re-)telling Christians what he thinks the Bible says about prayer.

(Here, I’ll note only this: My last real act as a Christian, besides one last agonized prayer, was studying what the Bible says about prayer. That’s when I finally understood that it looks nothing like how Christians describe it, and nothing like reality either. Just like that, one of the most important taps feeding my faith pool turned off.)

But most Christians go another route. They try to make prayer sound incredibly exciting, rewarding, and magically effective. In other words, they reframe prayer. We’ve already seen one such attempt in the quotes I’ve offered above.

There’s nothing wrong with reframing, as long as the results are still true and accurate. It can be a healthy way to get past a problem. Sometimes people just need another way to look at a situation. When it’s done to manipulate, though, and it describes something that isn’t true or accurate, then there’s a lot wrong with it. Then, it becomes gaslighting.

In this case, Christians already know that prayer is boring, unrewarding, and the opposite of effective. They’ve done enough prayer to know! They’ve watched themselves do it!

Reframing in action

In 2019, a Calvinist evangelical, Derek Rishmawy, tried hard to reframe prayer:

There are many reasons I don’t pray: distraction, busyness, or the sense that I should be doing something. These are all terrible, of course, but I think the saddest reason is simply boredom. If you’ve grown up in church or simply acclimatized to the secular air we breathe, prayer can appear as small potatoes. It’s something good you know you’re supposed to do because God, like your Great Aunt Suzy, would like you to call more often. But there is little urgency or anticipation.

How much would change, I wonder, if we looked to the story of Moses and the burning bush as our paradigm for prayer?Derek Rishmawy, Christianity Today

He ends with a crescendo of reframed enthusiasm:

Certainly, there is no place for lethargy or boredom. To pray is to enter the Temple, the high and exalted place, where the Holy One dwells in majestic light (Isa. 57:15). It is to call on the name of Yahweh, the fear of Israel (Isa. 8:13).

Considering the One we are praying to, there should be an exhilarating rush of adrenaline and a quickening of the pulse when we take God’s name on our lips. [. . .] Prayer is nothing less than an intimate encounter with the voice from the Flame.Derek Rishmawy, Christianity Today

Impressive, eh? But I wonder how well this reframing attempt worked for him. Does he still find it difficult to find time to pray, even after positioning prayer in this impossibly grandiose way? I bet he does, because back in my Pentecostal days decades ago, my crowd did the exact same thing. And yet we still had trouble finding time to pray.

When the reframing attempt draws a picture that the target knows isn’t true, then it becomes dishonest. The Bible can talk about burning bushes all it wants. Any Christian who’s done more than a few prayer sessions knows perfectly well that it doesn’t feel even a little like “an intimate encounter with the voice from the Flame.” That Bible story describes an encounter that looks like the polar opposite of prayer.

Christians’ dishonest reframing attempts might even backfire by making their targets curious, as I once was, about what the Bible really says about prayer.

When rubber meets the road, Christians vote with their time

We make time for that which is important to us. If we say we know something is terribly important, but we don’t make time for it, that should tip us off about our real priorities.

Sure, we do this all the time with stuff we know is actually good for us. Right now, gym members are likely still dealing with the “resolutioners” who flood their facilities every January. In a few more weeks, most of those folks will be gone.

Exercise is important. It’s one of the best ways humans have to stay happy, healthy, and long-lived. In the moment of exercising, our bodies release all kinds of feel-good chemicals. We’re meant to be active. Our bodies suffer greatly when we’re not. And yet somehow our busy lives get in the way of doing the thing.

The difference between exercise and prayer should be obvious, however. One is a proven-effective activity with observable results. The other has never been shown to do anything that Christians frequently claim it does.

One activity similar to prayer, meditation, appears to have real benefits for those practicing it. Practiced in a similar way, prayer might accomplish similar benefits. But I doubt Christians would ever officially adopt that style of prayer, even if they evolve singly, Christian by Christian, informal redefinitions that inch closer to the truth of the matter (as I also did).

By now, Christians have developed a cultural view of prayer that is both impossibly lofty and completely removed from even their own reality. Nothing else will please most of them. So dishonest reframing it is and shall be forevermore!

Christians will keep dishonestly reframing prayer to try to motivate themselves to do it more often, and they will still keep having trouble finding time to pray. Truly, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?

The following is Chapter 16 from Dan Barker’s book, Godless.

During the 19 years I preached the Gospel, the resurrection of Jesus was the keystone of my ministry. Every Easter I affirmed the Apostle Paul’s admonition: “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”23

I wrote a popular Easter musical called His Fleece Was White as Snow with the joyous finale proclaiming: “Sing Hosanna! Christ is risen! The Son has risen to shine on me!”24 But now I no longer believe it.

Many bible scholars25 and ministers—including one third of the clergy in the Church of England26—reject the idea that Jesus bodily came back to life. So do 30 percent of born-again American Christians!27 Why? When the Gospel of John portrays the postmortem Jesus on a fishing trip with his buddies and the writer of Matthew shows him giving his team a mountaintop pep talk two days after he died, how can there be any doubt that the original believers were convinced he had bodily risen from the grave?

There have been many reasons for doubting the claim, but many critical scholars today agree that the story is a “legend.” During the 60 to 70 years it took for the Gospels to be composed, the original story went through a growth period that began with the unadorned idea that Jesus, like Grandma, had “died and gone to heaven.” It ended with a fantastic narrative produced by a later generation of believers that included earthquakes, angels, an eclipse, a resuscitated corpse and a spectacular bodily ascension into the clouds.

The earliest Christians believed in the “spiritual” resurrection of Jesus. The story evolved over time into a “bodily” resurrection. As we saw in the previous chapter, the Jesus of history is not the Jesus of the New Testament. Some scholars believe the whole story is a myth, and others feel it is a legend based on some simple core facts that grew over time.

This chapter will show that at least the resurrection part of Jesus’ story is legend. A tale can be both myth and legend because all you need for a legend to start is a belief in a historical fact, whether that belief is true or not. But to most true believers, especially to fundamentalist inerrantists, there is no difference between whether the Jesus story is a complete myth or a legend based on some early facts. Either way, the New Testament loses reliability.

Before discussing the legend hypothesis in detail, let’s look briefly at some of the other reasons for skepticism.


If the resurrection happened, it was a miracle. Philosopher Antony Flew, in a 1985 debate on the resurrection28, pointed out that history is the wrong tool for proving miracle reports. (It doesn’t matter that Flew, once an atheist, later devolved into deism. He did not change his opinion on miracles or the resurrection of Jesus.) “The heart of the matter,” said Flew, “is that the criteria by which we must assess historical testimony, and the general presumptions that make it possible for us to construe leftovers from the past as historical evidence, are such that the possibility of establishing, on purely historical grounds, that some genuinely miraculous event has occurred is ruled out.”

When examining artifacts from the past, historians assume that nature worked back then as it does today; otherwise, anything goes. American patriot Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, asked: “Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.”

It is a fact of history and of current events that human beings exaggerate, misinterpret or wrongly remember events. Humans have also fabricated pious fraud. Most believers in a religion understand this when examining the claims of other religions. A messiah figure coming back to life—appearing out of thin air and disappearing—is a fantastic story by anyone’s standard, and that is what makes it a miracle claim. If dead people today routinely crawled out of their graves and went back to work, a resurrection would have little value as proof of God’s power. The fact that it is impossible or highly unlikely is what makes it a miracle. And that is what removes it from the reach of history.

History is limited; it can only confirm events that conform to natural regularity. This is not an anti-supernaturalistic bias against miracles, as is sometimes claimed by believers. The miracles may have happened, but in order to know they happened, we need a different tool of knowledge. Yet except for faith (which is not a science), history is the only tool Christians have to make a case for the resurrection of Jesus. Examining a miracle with history is like searching for a planet with a microscope. David Hume wrote: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”29

As I’ll mention more than once, Carl Sagan liked to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Such evidence is exactly what we do not have with the resurrection of Jesus. Protestants and Catholics seem to have no trouble applying healthy skepticism to the miracles of Islam, or to the “historical” visit between Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni. Why should Christians treat their own outrageous claims any differently? Why should someone who was not there be any more eager to believe than doubting Thomas, who lived during that time, or the other disciples who said that the women’s news from the tomb “seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not?” (Luke 24:11)

Thomas Paine points out that everything in the bible is hearsay. For example, the message at the tomb (if it happened at all) took this path, at minimum, before it got to our eyes: God, angel(s), Mary, disciples, Gospel writers, copyists and translators. (The Gospels are all anonymous and we have no original versions.) If history cannot prove a miracle, then certainly secondhand hearsay cannot either. At best (or worst), this should convince us not that the resurrection is disproved, but that disbelief in the resurrection is rationally justified. The incompatibility of miracles with the historical method is persuasive, especially to those not committed a priori to the truth of religious scripture, but we still need something more than this if we are to say with confidence that the bodily resurrection did not happen.


Some critics have offered naturalistic explanations for the New Testament stories of the empty tomb. Maybe Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross; he just passed out, and woke up later—the “swoon theory”30. Or perhaps the disciples hallucinated the risen Jesus. (They and “five hundred” others, Paul reported.) Or Mary went to the wrong tomb, finding it empty, mistaking the “young man” for an angel. Or perhaps the body was stolen—the “conspiracy theory.” This is an idea that boasts a hint of biblical support in that the only eyewitnesses (the Roman soldiers) said that was exactly what happened.31 Or perhaps Jesus’ body was only temporarily stored in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (possibly with the two thieves) and was later reburied in a common grave, the usual fate of executed criminals.32 Or perhaps someone else, such as Thomas, was crucified in Jesus’ place.33

These hypotheses have various degrees of plausibility. In my opinion, none of them seem overly likely, but they are at least as credible as a corpse coming back to life and they do fit the biblical facts.

“Why have you ruled out the supernatural?” is a question believers sometimes ask. I answer that I have not ruled it out: I have simply given it the low probability it deserves along with the other possibilities. I might equally ask them, “Why have you ruled out the natural?” The problem I have with some of the natural explanations is that they give the text too much credit. They tend to require almost as much faith as the orthodox interpretation. Combined with the historical objection and the mythicists’ arguments, the existence of a number of plausible natural alternatives can bolster the confidence of skeptics, but they can’t positively disprove the bodily resurrection of Jesus.


The resurrection of Jesus is one of the few stories that is told repeatedly in the bible—more than five times—so it provides an excellent test for the orthodox claim of scriptural inerrancy and reliability. When we compare the accounts, we see they don’t agree. An easy way to prove this is to issue this challenge to Christians: Tell me what happened on Easter. I am not asking for proof at this stage. Before we can investigate the truth of what happened, we have to know what is being claimed to have happened. My straightforward request is merely that Christians tell me exactly what happened on the day that their most important doctrine was born.

Believers should eagerly take up this challenge, since without the resurrection there is no Christianity. Paul wrote, “If Christ be not risen… we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.” (I Corinthians 15:14-15)

The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul’s tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second and so on; who said what and when; and where these things happened. The narrative does not have to strive to present a perfect picture—it only needs to give at least one plausible account of all of the facts. The important condition to the challenge, however, is that not one single biblical detail be omitted. Of course, the words have to be accurately translated and the ordering of events has to follow the biblical ordering. Fair enough?

Many bible stories are given only once or twice, and are therefore hard to confirm. The author of Matthew, for example, was the only one to mention that at the crucifixion dead people emerged from the graves of Jerusalem to walk around and show themselves to everyone—an amazing event that would hardly have escaped the notice of the other Gospel writers, or any other historians of the period. But though the silence of other writers weakens the likelihood of this story—because if they did repeat it, believers would certainly tout the existence of such confirmation—it does not disprove it.

Disconfirmation comes with contradictions. Thomas Paine tackled this matter 200 years ago in The Age of Reason, stumbling across dozens of New Testament discrepancies: “I lay it down as a position which cannot be controverted,” he wrote, “first, that the agreement of all the parts of a story does not prove that story to be true, because the parts may agree and the whole may be false; secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true.”

I tried to solve the discrepancies myself, and failed. One of the first problems I found is in Matthew 28:2, after two women arrived at the tomb: “And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.” (Let’s ignore the fact that no other writer mentioned this “great earthquake.”) This story says that the stone was rolled away after the women arrived, in their presence. Yet Mark’s Gospel says it happened before the women arrived: “And they said among themselves, Who shall roll away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.” Luke writes: “And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.” John agrees. No earthquake, no rolling stone. It is a three-to-one vote: Matthew loses. (Or else the other three are wrong.)

The event cannot have happened both before and after they arrived. Some bible defenders assert that Matthew 28:2 was intended to be understood in the past perfect, showing what had happened before the women arrived. But the entire passage is in the aorist (past) tense and it reads, in context, like a simple chronological account. Matthew 28:2 begins, “And, behold,” not “For, behold.” If this verse can be so easily shuffled around, then what is to keep us from putting the flood before the ark, or the crucifixion before the nativity?

Another glaring problem is the fact that in Matthew the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples happened on a mountain in Galilee (not in Jerusalem, as most Christians believe), as predicted by the angel sitting on the newly moved rock: “And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him.” This must have been of supreme importance, since this was the message of God via the angel(s) at the tomb. Jesus had even predicted this himself 60 hours earlier, during the Last Supper (Matthew 26:32). After receiving this angelic message, “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:16-17) Reading this at face value, and in context, it is clear that Matthew intends this to have been the first appearance. Otherwise, if Jesus had been seen before this time, why did some doubt?

Mark agrees with Matthew’s account of the angel’s Galilee message, but gives a different story about the first appearance. Luke and John give different angel messages and then radically contradict Matthew. Luke shows the first appearance on the road to Emmaus and then in a room in Jerusalem. John says it happened later than evening in a room, minus Thomas. These angel messages, locations and travels during the day are impossible to reconcile.

Believers sometimes use the analogy of the five blind men examining an elephant, all coming away with a different definition: tree trunk (leg), rope (tail), hose (trunk), wall (side) and fabric (ear). People who use this argument forget that each of the blind men was wrong: an elephant is not a rope or a tree. You can put the five parts together to arrive at a noncontradictory aggregate of the entire animal. This hasn’t been done with the resurrection.

Apologists sometimes compare the resurrection variations to differing accounts given by witnesses of an auto accident. If one witness says the vehicle was green and the other says it was blue, that could be accounted for by different angles, lighting, perception or definitions of words. The important thing, the apologists claim, is that they do agree on the basic story—there was an accident (there was a resurrection).

I am not a fundamentalist inerrantist. I’m not demanding that the evangelists must have been expert, infallible witnesses. (None of them claims to have witnessed the actual resurrection.) But what if one person said the auto accident happened in Chicago and the other said it happened in Milwaukee? At least one of these witnesses has serious problems with the truth. Luke says the post-resurrection appearance happened in Jerusalem, but Matthew says it happened in Galilee, sixty to 100 miles away! Could they all have traveled 150 miles that day, by foot, trudging up to Galilee for the first appearance, then back to Jerusalem for the evening meal? There is no mention of any horses, but 12 well-conditioned thoroughbreds racing at breakneck speed as the crow flies would need about five hours for the trip, without a rest. And during this madcap scenario, could Jesus have found time for a leisurely stroll to Emmaus, accepting “toward evening” an invitation to dinner? Something is very wrong here. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, none of these contradictions prove that the resurrection did not happen, but they do throw considerable doubt on the reliability of the supposed reporters. Some of them were wrong. Maybe they were all wrong. I say to Christians: Either tell me exactly what happened on Easter Sunday or let’s leave the Jesus myth buried next to Eastre (Ishtar, Astarte), the pagan Goddess of Spring after whom your holiday was named.

CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT (KJV=King James Version; NRSV=New Revised Standard Version; NIV=New International Version)

What time did the women visit the tomb? • Matthew: “as it began to dawn” (28:1) • Mark: “very early in the morning . . . at the rising of the sun” (16:2, KJV); “when the sun had risen” (NRSV); “just after sunrise” (NIV) • Luke: “very early in the morning” (24:1, KJV) “at early dawn” (NRSV) • John: “when it was yet dark” (20:1)

Who were the women? • Matthew: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (28:1) • Mark: Mary Magdalene, the mother of James, and Salome (16:1) • Luke: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women (24:10) • John: Mary Magdalene (20:1)

What was their purpose? • Matthew: to see the tomb (28:1) • Mark: had already seen the tomb (15:47), brought spices (16:1) • Luke: had already seen the tomb (23:55), brought spices (24:1) • John: the body had already been spiced before they arrived (19:39, 40)

Was the tomb open when they arrived? • Matthew: No (28:2) • Mark: Yes (16:4) • Luke: Yes (24:2) • John: Yes (20:1)

Who was at the tomb when they arrived? • Matthew: One angel (28:2-7) • Mark: One young man (16:5) • Luke: Two men (24:4) • John: Two angels (20:12)

Where were these messengers situated? • Matthew: Angel sitting on the stone (28:2) • Mark: Young man sitting inside, on the right (16:5) • Luke: Two men standing inside (24:4) • John: Two angels sitting on each end of the bed (20:12)

What did the messenger(s) say? • Matthew: “Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead: and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.” (28:5-7) • Mark: “Be not afrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.” (16:6-7) • Luke: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” (24:5-7) • John: “Woman, why weepest thou?” (20:13)

Did the women tell what happened? • Matthew: Yes (28:8) • Mark: No. “Neither said they any thing to any man.” (16:8) • Luke: Yes. “And they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest.” (24:9, 22-24) • John: Yes (20:18)

When Mary returned from the tomb, did she know Jesus had been resurrected? • Matthew: Yes (28:7-8) • Mark: Yes (16:10, 1134) • Luke: Yes (24:6-9, 23) • John: No (20:2) When did Mary first see Jesus? • Matthew: Before she returned to the disciples (28:9) • Mark: Before she returned to the disciples (16:9, 1034) • John: After she returned to the disciples (20:2, 14)

Could Jesus be touched after the resurrection? • Matthew: Yes (28:9) • John: No (20:17) and Yes (20:27)

After the women, to whom did Jesus first appear? • Matthew: Eleven disciples (28:16) • Mark: Two disciples in the country, later to 11 (16:12, 1412) • Luke: Two disciples in Emmaus, later to 11 (24:13, 36) • John: Ten disciples (Judas and Thomas were absent) (20:19, 24) • Paul: First to Cephas (Peter), then to the 12. (Twelve? Judas was dead). (I Corinthians 15:5)

Where did Jesus first appear to the disciples? • Matthew: On a mountain in Galilee (60-100 miles away) (28:16-17) • Mark: To two in the country, to 11 “as they sat at meat” (16:12,1412) • Luke: In Emmaus (about seven miles away) at evening, to the rest in a room in Jerusalem later that night. (24:31, 36) • John: In a room, at evening (20:19)

Did the disciples believe the two men? • Mark: No (16:1312) • Luke: Yes (24:34—it is the group speaking here, not the two)

What happened at that first appearance? • Matthew: Disciples worshipped, some doubted, “Go preach.” (28:17-20) • Mark: Jesus reprimanded them, said, “Go preach” (16:14-1912) • Luke: Christ incognito, vanishing act, materialized out of thin air, reprimand, supper (24:13-51) • John: Passed through solid door, disciples happy, Jesus blesses them, no reprimand (21:19-23)

Did Jesus stay on earth for more than a day? • Mark: No (16:1912) Compare 16:14 with John 20:19 to show that this was all done on Sunday • Luke: No (24:50-52) It all happened on Sunday • John: Yes, at least eight days (20:26, 21:1-22) • Acts: Yes, at least 40 days (1:3)

Where did the ascension take place? • Matthew: No ascension. Book ends on mountain in Galilee • Mark: In or near Jerusalem, after supper (16:1912) • Luke: In Bethany, very close to Jerusalem, after supper (24:50-51) • John: No ascension • Paul: No ascension • Acts: Ascended from Mount of Olives (1:9-12)

It is not just atheist critics who notice these problems. Christian scholars agree that the stories are discrepant. Culver H. Nelson: “In any such reading, it should become glaringly obvious that these materials often contradict one another egregiously. No matter how eagerly one may wish to do so, there is simply no way the various accounts of Jesus’ postmortem activities can be harmonized.”35

A. E. Harvey: “All the Gospels, after having run closely together in their accounts of the trial and execution, diverge markedly when they come to the circumstance of the Resurrection. It’s impossible to fit their accounts together into a single coherent scheme.”36

Thomas Sheehan agrees: “Despite our best efforts, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ post-mortem activities, in fact, cannot be harmonized into a consistent Easter chronology.”37

The religiously independent (though primarily Christian) scholars at the Westar Institute, which includes more than 70 bible scholars with a Ph.D. or the equivalent, conclude: “The five gospels that report appearances (Matthew, Luke, John, Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews) go their separate ways when they are not rewriting Mark; their reports cannot be reconciled to each other. Hard historical evidence is sparse.”38

I have challenged believers to provide a simple non-contradictory chronological narrative of the events between Easter Sunday and the ascension, without omitting a single biblical detail. Some have tried but, without misinterpreting words or drastically rearranging passages, no one has given a coherent account. Some have offered “harmonies” (apparently not wondering why the work of a perfect deity should have to be harmonized), but none have met the reasonable request to simply tell the story.


C. S. Lewis and Christian apologist Josh McDowell offer three choices in urging us to consider who Jesus was: “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord.”39 But this completely ignores a fourth option: Legend. If the Jesus character is a literary creation—whether partially or completely—then it was others who put words in his mouth, and it is grossly simplistic to take these words at face value.

A legend begins with a basic story (true or false) that grows into something more embellished and exaggerated as the years pass. When we look at the documents of the resurrection of Jesus, we see that the earliest accounts are very simple, later retellings are more complex and the latest tales are fantastic. In other words, it looks exactly like a legend.

The documents that contain a resurrection story40 are usually dated like this: Paul: 50-55 (I Cor. 15:3-8); Mark: 70 (Mark 16); Matthew: 80 (Matthew 28); Luke: 85 (Luke 24); Gospel of Peter: 85-90 (Fragment); John: 95 (John 20-21). This is the general dating agreed upon by most scholars, including scholars at the Westar Institute. Some conservative scholars prefer to date them earlier, and others have moved some of them later, but this would not change the order of the writing41, which is more important than the actual dates when considering legendary growth.

Shifting the dates changes the shape but not the fact of the growth curve. I made a list of things I consider “extraordinary” (natural and supernatural) in the stories between the crucifixion and ascension of Jesus. These include: earthquakes, angel(s), rolling stone, dead bodies crawling from Jerusalem graves (“Halloween” 42), Jesus appearing out of thin air (now you see him) and disappearing (now you don’t), the “fish story” miracle,43 Peter’s noncanonical “extravaganza” exit from the tomb (see below), a giant Jesus with head in the clouds, a talking cross and a bodily ascension into heaven.

Perhaps others would choose a slightly different list, but I’m certain it would include most of the same events. I do not consider events that are surprising to be extraordinary. For example, seeing a man whom you thought was dead is indeed surprising, but not extraordinary. Neither is it extraordinary to have a vision of a person who is dead or presumed dead. (My dad heard the voice of my mother for a long time after she died, and though it seemed quite real and “spooky,” he knew it was just in his mind. After a period of time those hallucinations abated. That is not extraordinary.)

Then I counted the number of extraordinary events that appear in each resurrection account. In the order in which the accounts were written, Paul has zero, Mark has one, Matthew has four, Luke has five, Peter has six and John has at least six. (John wrote, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” 20:30) Putting these on a time graph produces a curve that goes up as the years pass. The later resurrection reports contain more extraordinary events than the earlier ones, so it is clear that the story, at least in the telling, has evolved and expanded over time.

In finer detail, we can count the number of messengers at the tomb, which also grows over time, as well as the certainty of the claim that they were angels. Paul: 0 angels. Mark: 1 young man sitting. Matthew: 1 angel sitting. Luke: 2 men standing. Peter: 2 men/angels walking. John: 2 angels sitting. Other items fit the pattern. Bodily appearances are absent from the first two accounts, but show up in the last four accounts, starting in the year 80 C.E. The bodily ascension is absent from the first three stories, but appears in the last three starting in the year 85 C.E. This ballooning of details reveals the footprints of legend.

The mistake many modern Christians make is to view 30 C.E. backward through the distorted lens of 80-100 C.E., more than a half century later. They forcibly superimpose the extraordinary tales of the late Gospels anachronistically upon the plainer views of the first Christians, pretending naively that all Christians believed exactly the same thing across the entire first century.


How can we say that Paul reported no extraordinary events? Doesn’t his account include an empty tomb and appearances of a dead man? Here is what Paul said in I Corinthians 15:3-8, around the year 55 C.E., the earliest written account of the resurrection: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and was buried. [etaphe] And he was raised [egeiro] on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures and he appeared [ophthe] to Cephas [Peter]
and then to the twelve. Afterward, he appeared to more than 500 brethren,
most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
Afterward he appeared to James, and then to all the missionaries [apostles].
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

This is a formula, or hymn, in poetic style that Paul claims he “received” from a believer reciting an earlier oral tradition. He edited the end of it, obviously. It is possible that this passage originated just a few years after Jesus lived, although notice that Paul does not call him “Jesus” here.

It is interesting that one of the arguments some apologists give for the authenticity of the New Testament is that it is written in a simple narrative style, unlike the poetic style of other myths and legends—yet the very first account of the resurrection is written in a poetic, legendary style.

This letter to the Corinthians was written at least a quarter of a century after the events to people far removed from the scene—Corinth is about 1,500 miles away by land. None of the readers, many or most not even born when Jesus supposedly died, would [not] have been able to confirm the story. They had to take Paul’s word alone that there were “500 brethren” who saw Jesus alive. Who were these 500 nameless people, and why didn’t they or any of the thousands who heard their stories write about it? And isn’t 500 a suspiciously round number? And why didn’t Jesus appear to anyone who was not part of the in-crowd of believers?

In any event, what Paul actually wrote here does not support a bodily resurrection. It supports legend. First, notice how simple it is, this earliest resurrection story. No angelic messages, no mourning women, no earthquakes, no miracles and no spectacular bodily ascension into the clouds. Nor is there an empty tomb. The word “buried” is the ambiguous etaphe, which simply means “put in a grave (taphos).”

Although a taphos could be a common dirt grave (the most likely destination of executed criminals) or a stone sepulchre (such as the one owned by Joseph of Arimathea), it is important to note that this passage does not use the word “sepulchre” (mnemeion) that first appears in Mark’s later account. Since Paul does not mention a tomb, we can hardly conclude with confidence he was thinking of an “empty tomb.” Those who think he was talking of a tomb are shoehorning Mark’s Gospel back into this plain hymn.

Neither is there a resurrection in this passage. The word “raised” is egeiro, which means to “wake up” or “come to.” Paul did not use the word resurrection (anastasis, anistemi) here, though he certainly knew it. Egeiro is used throughout the New Testament to mean something simpler. “Now it is high time to awaken [egeiro] out of sleep”44 was not written to corpses. “Awake [egeiro] thou that sleepest, and arise [anistemi] from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light”45 was also written to breathing people.

So, Paul obviously means something nonphysical here, even with his use of “resurrect,” contrasted with egeiro (before you get up, you have to wake up). Matthew uses egeiro like this: “There arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with waves: but he was asleep. And his disciples came to him and awoke [egeiro] him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish.”46 No one thinks Jesus resurrected from a boat.

Whatever Paul may have believed happened to Jesus, he did not say that his revived body came out of a tomb. It is perfectly consistent with Christian theology to think that the spirit of Jesus, not his body, was awakened from the grave, as Christians today believe that the spirit of Grandpa has gone to heaven while his body rots in the ground. In fact, just a few verses later, Paul confirms this: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”47 The physical body is not important to Christian theology.

But what about the postmortem appearances Paul mentions? Don’t they suggest a risen body? Actually, the word “appeared” in this passage is also ambiguous and does not require a physical presence. The word ophthe, from the verb horao, is used for both physical sight as well as spiritual visions. For example: “And a vision appeared [ophthe] to Paul in the night; there stood a man of Macedonia… And after he had seen the vision [horama], immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia…”48 No one thinks the Macedonian was standing bodily in front of Paul when he “appeared” to him.

Paul includes Peter in his list of “appearances” by Christ, yet at the Transfiguration described in Matthew we find the same word used for an “appearance” to Peter that was not physical: “And after six days Jesus takes Peter, James, and John his brother, and brings them up into a high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And behold there appeared [ophthe] Moses and Elijah talking with him.”49 Did Moses and Elijah appear physically to Peter? Shall we start looking for their empty tombs? This is obviously some kind of spiritual appearance.

Besides, if we believe Mark and Matthew, Paul’s first witness to the resurrection appearances was an admitted liar. In a court of law, Peter’s reliability would be seriously compromised since he had repeatedly denied knowing Jesus just a couple of days earlier, after he had promised Jesus he would be loyal.50

Paul himself was not above using a lie if it furthered his message: “Let God be true, but every man a liar… For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged a sinner?”51 Paul, needing to establish credentials with his readers, tacks onto the list that Christ “appeared also to me,” so if we look at the description of that appearance, we can see what he means. Paul claimed that he had met Jesus on the road to Damascus, but notice that Jesus did not physically appear to Paul there.

He was knocked off his horse and blinded. (I know there is no horse in the story, but for some reason I picture a horse—an example of legend making!) How could Jesus appear physically to a blind man? Paul’s men admit they did not see anyone, but just heard a voice (Acts 9:7) or did not hear a voice (Acts 22:9). Take your pick52.

This “appearance” to Paul was supposedly years after Jesus ascended into heaven, which raises a good question: Where was Jesus all those years? Was his physical body hanging around in the clouds, hovering over the road to Damascus? Did he need a haircut? What did he eat up there? How did he bathe? Clearly, Paul did not shake hands with Jesus, yet he includes this “appearance” in the list with the others in I Corinthians 15.

Elsewhere Paul elaborates on his roadside encounter: “For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but . . . when it pleased God…to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen, immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood.”53 Notice he does not say “I met Jesus physically” or “I saw Jesus.” He says God “revealed his son in me.” This was an inner experience, not a face-to-face meeting.

This is exactly how many modern Christians talk about their own “personal relationship” with Jesus. All of the “appearances” in I Corinthians 15:3-8 must be viewed as psychological “spiritual experiences,” not physiological encounters with a revived corpse. If they really happened they are unusual, but they are not extraordinary. Such hallucinating, daydreaming or imagining happens in most religions. In Paul, we have no empty tomb, no resurrection and no bodily appearances.


About 15 years later, the next account of the resurrection appears in Mark, the first Gospel, written at least 40 years after the events. Almost all adults who were alive in the year 30 C.E. were dead by then54. No one knows who wrote Mark—the Gospels are all anonymous and names were formally attached to them much later, around the year 180 C.E.55

Whoever wrote Mark is speaking from the historical perspective of a second generation of believers, not as an eyewitness. His account of the resurrection (16:1-8) is only eight verses long. The 12 succeeding verses that appear in some translations (with snake handling and poison drinking) were a later addition by someone else (evidence that Christian tampering began early).

Mark’s story is more elaborate than Paul’s, but still very simple, almost blunt. If we consider the young man at the sepulchre “clothed in a long white garment” to be an angel, then we have one extraordinary event. Just one. There are no earthquakes or postmortem appearances, and there is no ascension. In fact, there is no belief in the resurrection, and no preaching of a risen Christ.

The book ends with the women running away: “…neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid,” a rather limp finish considering the supposed import of the event. Notice that the young man says, “he is risen (egeiro).” Like Paul, he avoids the word “resurrection.” Such words can be uttered in the presence of a dead body, as they are at many funerals.


In Matthew, a half century after the events, we finally get some of the fantastic stories of which modern Christians are so fond. The earthquake, rolling stone and “Halloween” story20 appear for the first (and only) time. We also have a bonafide angel and postmortem appearances.


Matthew and Luke were based to some degree on Mark, but they each added their own wrinkles. In Luke, we have the “now you see him, now you don’t” appearance and disappearance of Jesus, and a bodily ascension. We also have two angels, if we consider the men “in shining garments” to be angels.


This is a fragment of an extracanonical Gospel, purportedly authored by Simon Peter (which means it was composed by another creative Christian), that begins in the middle of what appears to be a resurrection story. The dating is controversial, but it certainly was composed no earlier than the 80s C.E.

A crowd from Jerusalem visited the sealed tomb on the Sabbath. On Easter morning, the soldiers observed the actual resurrection after the stone rolled by itself away from the entrance (no earthquake). In an extravaganza of light, two young men descended from the sky and went inside the tomb, then the two men whose heads reached to the sky carried out a third man who was taller, followed by a cross. A voice from heaven asked, “Have you preached to those who sleep?” The cross answered, “Yes!” Then someone else entered the tomb. Later the women found a young man inside saying something similar to what was said in Mark. “Then the women fled in fear.” This is fantastic stuff.


The last of the canonical Gospels appears to be mainly independent of the others in style and content, which is why Mark, Matthew and Luke, but not John, are called the “synoptic Gospels.” (Maybe we can call John the “myopic Gospel.” Myopia affects vision at a distance.) John’s resurrection story has real angels, bodily appearances (including a “now you see him” manifestation through shut doors), the “fish story” miracle and an ascension.

By now the legend has become—legendary. The anonymous writer ends his Gospel with the claim that there were “many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”56

John is obviously exaggerating, but this is no surprise since he admits that his agenda is not simply to tell the facts: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”57 This is not the work of a historian; it is propaganda written “that you might believe.” Authors like this should be read with a grain of salt.


We often hear that the resurrection must have happened because the disciples were so confident they endured torture and death for their faith (though there is no first-century evidence for this claim). But think about this. The Gospels were written between the years 70 C.E. and 100 C.E. The authors were most certainly not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but let’s assume (for the sake of argument) that the writers (whoever they were) were young men who knew Jesus and were perhaps 20 or 25 years old when he died. (Matthew the tax collector and Luke the physician were maybe older?)

The life expectancy in that century was 45 years,58 so people in their 60s would have been ancient. (As recently as the 1900 U.S. Census, people 55 and older were counted as “elderly.”) Mark would have been 65, Matthew at least 70, Luke at least 75 and John almost 90 when they sat down to write. How did the disciples survive the alleged persecution and torture to live long enough to write those books? Being martyred is no way to double your life expectancy. It makes more sense to think those anonymous documents were composed by a later generation of believers. They were not eyewitnesses.


In any open question, we should argue from what we do know to what we do not know. We do know that fervent legends and stubborn myths arise easily and naturally. We do not know that dead people rise from the grave. We do know that human memory is imperfect. We do not know that angels exist.

Some Christians argue that the period of time between the events and the writing was too short for a legend to have evolved; however, we know this is not true. The 1981 legend of the Virgin Mary appearance at Medjugorge spread across Yugoslavia in just two days, confirmed by repeated corroborative testimony of real witnesses who are still alive. International pilgrims visited the place almost immediately, some claiming they were healed at the spot. Yet few Protestants believe the story. Shall we start looking for the empty tomb of Mary?

The legend of Elian Gonzales, the young Cuban refugee who was rescued off the coast of Florida in 1999, developed into an organized cult within a couple of weeks. There were claims that he was the “Cuban Messiah” who would set his oppressed people free from the Castro Devil, sightings of the Virgin Mary in downtown Miami, and tales of his protection by angels and dolphins (actually dolphin fish).59

The extraordinary 19th-century stories of Mormon founder Joseph Smith were accepted as gospel fact within a few short years.

There was plenty of time for the legend of the resurrection of Jesus to evolve. We do know that people regularly see deceased relatives and friends in dreams and visions. My own grandmother swore to me that she regularly saw my dead grandfather entering the house, smiling and waving at her, often accompanied by other dead relatives who were opening and closing drawers. Should I have dug up my grandfather’s grave to prove she was only dreaming or hallucinating in her grief? Would that have made any difference?

Yet some Christians insist that this is exactly what would have happened if the story of Jesus were false. If the tomb were not empty, detractors could have easily silenced the rumors by producing the body. But this assumes that they cared enough to do such a thing—they didn’t do it when Herod heard rumors that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead.60 It was a crime to rob a grave, and who would have known where to find it? (Early Christians never venerated Jesus’ empty tomb, which is another evidence it did not exist.)

Also, it was at least seven weeks after the burial before the resurrection was first preached during Pentecost. By the time anyone might have cared to squelch the story, two or three months would have passed—and what happens to a dead body in that climate for that period of time? The body of Lazarus was “stinking” after only four days.61 If someone had had the gumption to locate and illegally dig up the decayed body of Jesus and parade it through the streets, would the disciples have believed the unrecognizable rotting skeleton was really their Lord and Savior? I don’t think so, any more than my grandmother would have been convinced she was deluded.

During one of my debates, Greg Boyd offered the simple argument that the resurrection must have happened because otherwise we have no explanation for the birth and the tremendous growth of the Christian Church. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, he insisted. But this argument can be equally applied to the “smoke” of other religions, such as Islam, with hundreds of millions of good people believing that the illiterate Muhammad miraculously wrote the Koran.

It can be applied to the “smoke” of Mormonism, with millions of moral and intelligent individuals believing the angel Moroni gave Joseph Smith gold tablets inscribed with the Book of Mormon. “Why should non-Mormons find the story hard to believe?” Robert J. Miller asks. “After all, it is no more plausible than dozens of stories in the bible (for example, Jonah and the whale) that many Christians believe with no difficulty at all.

The difference has very little to do with the stories themselves and a great deal to do with whether one approaches them as an insider or an outsider. Putting it a bit crudely perhaps, stories about our miracles are easy to believe because they’re true; stories about their miracles are easy to dismiss because they’re far-fetched and fictitious.”62 It could also be applied to the Moonies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and many other successful religious movements. If smoke is evidence of fire, are they all true?


If the story is not true, then how did it originate? We don’t really know but we can make some good guesses, based on what happened with other legends and religious movements and what we know about human nature.

Assuming that the New Testament is somewhat reliable, Robert Price offers one sensible scenario. Peter’s state of mind is the key. The disciples had expected Jesus to set up a kingdom on earth, and this did not happen. He was killed. They then expected Jesus to return, and this did not happen. Nothing was going right and this created a cognitive dissonance. Peter, who had promised loyalty to Jesus and then denied him publicly a few hours before the crucifixion, must have been feeling horrible. (The day after “Good Friday” is called “Black Sabbath,” the day the disciples were in mourning and shock.)

Imagine you had a horrible argument with a spouse or loved one where you said some unpleasant things you later regretted, but before you had a chance to apologize and make up the person died. Picture your state of mind: grief, regret, shock, embarrassment, sadness, and a desperate wish to bring the person back and make things right.

That’s how Peter must have felt. Believing in God and the survival of the soul, Peter prays to Jesus: “I’m sorry. Forgive me.” (Or something like that.) Then Peter gets an answer: “I’m here. I forgive you.” (Or something like that.) Then Peter triumphantly tells his friends, “I talked with Jesus! He is not dead! I am forgiven!” His friends say, “Peter talked with Jesus? Peter met Jesus? He’s alive! It’s a spiritual kingdom!” (Or something like that.) Paul then lists Peter as the first person to whom Christ “appeared.” We don’t need to know exactly what happened, only that things like this do happen.

Look at the 19th-century Millerites, who evolved into the Seventh Day Adventists when the world did not end as they had predicted. Or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose church rebounded after the failed prophecies of Charles Russell and Joseph Rutherford that the world would end in 1914. Oops, they meant 1925. (They got creative and said Jesus actually returned to earth “spiritually.”)

After the 21st-century death of Rulon Jeffs, the Prophet of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints church who was predicted to rise from the dead, his son Warren Jeffs declared that his father had, in fact, been resurrected “spiritually” and was now directing the church from another dimension. Warren then took his father’s many young wives, the ones that did not run off. (See Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall.)

Robert Price elaborates: “When a group has staked everything on a religious belief, and ‘burned their bridges behind them,’ only to find this belief disconfirmed by events, they may find disillusionment too painful to endure. They soon come up with some explanatory rationalization, the plausibility of which will be reinforced by the mutual encouragement of fellow believers in the group. In order to increase further the plausibility of their threatened belief, they may engage in a massive new effort at proselytizing. The more people who can be convinced, the truer it will seem.

In the final analysis, then, a radical disconfirmation of belief may be just what a religious movement needs to get off the ground.”63 There have been other plausible scenarios explaining the origin of the legend, but we don’t need to describe them all. The fact that they exist shows that the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus cannot be taken as a given.


The idea of a legend is respectful of the humanity of the early Christians. We do know that the human race possesses an immense propensity to create, believe and propagate falsehood. So, what makes the early Christians exempt? Weren’t they just people? Did they never make mistakes? Were they so superhuman that they always resisted the temptations of exaggeration and rhetoric? Did they have perfect memories?

Given the discrepancies in their accounts, why not treat those early believers like ourselves, not as cartoon characters but as real human beings with normal human fears, desires and limitations? The fact that my grandmother was hallucinating did not make me love or respect her any less. The legend idea is respectful of the historical method. We are not required to jettison the natural regularity that makes history work.

We can take the New Testament accounts as reports of what people sincerely believed to be true, not what is necessarily true. We can honor the question, “Do you believe everything you read?” The legend idea is respectful of theology. If Jesus bodily ascended into physical clouds, then we are presented with a spatially limited flat-earth God sitting on a material throne of human size, with a right and left hand. If Jesus physically levitated into the sky, where is his body now? Does he sometimes need a haircut?

If the bodily resurrection is viewed as a legendary embellishment, then believers are free to view their god as a boundless spiritual being, not defined in human dimensions as the pagan gods were. Bible scholars conclude: “On the basis of a close analysis of all the resurrection reports, [we] decided that the resurrection of Jesus was not perceived initially to depend on what happened to his body. The body of Jesus probably decayed, as do all corpses.

The resurrection of Jesus was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been captured by a video camera… [We] conclude that it does not seem necessary for Christians to believe the literal veracity of any of the later appearance narratives.”64

Finally, the legend idea is respectful of the freedom to believe. If the resurrection of Jesus were proved as a blunt fact of history, then we would have no choice, no room for faith. You can’t have the freedom to believe if you do not have the freedom not to believe.

Barker, Dan. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (pp. 277-306). Ulysses Press. Kindle Edition.

Is There Happiness without Jesus?

Here’s the link to this article by Merle Hertzler.

Beautiful and happy dog

Perhaps to you, Christ is the only hope in this world. Your life is centered on him. He is your purpose in life. I understand. I have been there. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior many years ago. I have read the Bible from cover to cover six times–every chapter, every verse, and every line. I have spent literally hours a week in prayer, as I grew in my personal relationship with the Lord. In college, I never drank alcohol. Instead, I attended prayer meetings and went door-to-door witnessing to get my thrills. I have taught Sunday school, sung in the choir, and worked in the children’s ministry. I have been there and done that. I know what it is like to discuss all the details of my life with the Lord, believing that he was right there in my heart listening to me.

I know the excitement of doing God’s work all day Sunday. And I also know the emptiness that would come on Monday. I used to wonder why a person that was so committed to the Lord would feel that way on Monday. It seemed that the more I allowed myself to get excited on Sunday, the worse I would feel on Monday.

I am no longer a believer. I have found something different. I have learned to question, to explore, to think, to be free, to be me. I have the freedom to freely grasp life without the restraint of religion. I have found a purpose that is as good on Monday as it is on Sunday. Life without Christianity can be far more fulfilling than anything that I had ever found inside. And there are hundreds of others who testify to the same thing.

Religious Beliefs and Societal Health, By Matthew Provonsha
Into the Clear Air by Adam Lee Why are these people so happy?
When You Feel Like a Loser by Merle Hertzler Sad? Discouraged? I offer some advice.
The Crazy-Making in Christianity by Marlene Winell What faith can do to you, and how to recover.
Justin Brierley and the Folly of Christianity by Richard Carrier
The Bible and Self Esteem by Merle Hertzler

Happiness links

Have you found joy in Christ? I am glad that you are happy. But tell me something, please: Why do so many Christians struggle to find that joy? Where is their peace? Why are they so discouraged? Why are they so sad?

How do I know that many Christians are sad? Here is one way to see it: Fire up your search engine and search for “sad discouraged depressed Christians.” As I write this I find 9,570,000 hits.[1 ] Sure, not all of  those sites are relevant, but most of the top sites are. They are written by Christians to help sad, depressed Christians. Why are all these people trying to help discouraged Christians? It seems that there is a problem. There must be many thousands of sad, depressed Christians out there.

Let’s look at the solutions offered on these sites. What are Christians depending on to give them hope? Some Christians look to Christ alone as their source of happiness. Others look to other sources also, such as psychology, to help them find their way. What do the top Christian sites propose? I found the usual smattering of Bible verses, and then I found suggestions such as these:

  • Replace negative with positive thoughts
  • Keep a journal of what you think and feel
  • Give yourself affirmations
  • Listen to relaxing music
  • Get more light or less heat
  • Change your normal routine
  • Seek professional help
  • Take St. John’s Wort
  • Try cognitive therapy [2]

We see here a variety of techniques. It would appear to me that these suggestions have little to do with Jesus. Can no freethinker ever listen to relaxing music? Can no atheist go into the sunlight or affirm himself? These things apply to unbelievers as well as Christians. The unbeliever is not missing out on any of this. In fact, many have found that it is easier to enjoy the good life without religion.

Does Jesus really give his followers peace and joy? Then why must Christians walk around giving themselves affirmations to avoid depression?

Do you see the hypocrisy here? Non-Christians are told that they need to accept Christ to have peace and joy in their life. Yet many believers are missing peace and joy, and Christians recommend that these believers turn to therapies such as cognitive therapy, a treatment that was developed in the secular world. Is this consistent? If cognitive therapy is the cure for the troubled mind, why do evangelists tell us that Jesus is the cure?

Psychological Testimonies: Anti-Witnessing the sufficiency of Christ.

Psychology vs Faith links

Do you need to give yourself pep talks to avoid discouragement? Do you have a daily struggle trying to find peace and joy? Then you cannot tell me that I need what you have to be happy. It seems to me that it would be hypocritical to claim on Sunday that one has peace and joy in life, and then visit the psychiatrist to deal with a life in despair on Monday. Wouldn’t it be better to face the facts? Wouldn’t it be better for one to admit that, in spite of religion, he is not really happy? Wouldn’t it be better for such a person to say that his Christianity has not really satisfied him?

Perhaps you have indeed found genuine happiness in Christianity. I am glad for you. I hope you understand that others have found happiness elsewhere. You may not need what I have to be happy, and I may not need what you have.

But not all Christians are happy. Many are very sad. Some tell me that it is only weak, carnal Christians who experience such prolonged sadness. They will tell me that mature Christians overcome and are happy. Then why is it that there are sites dedicated to helping depressed missionaries?

Missionary Care  A mental health ministry for Christian missionaries.
Psychiatric Wards for Born-Again Christians Only by Edmund D. Cohen

Christian Depression links

With so many missionaries in need of recovery from depression, it seems that one can be totally dedicated to Christ and not be happy. It is difficult for me to see that they can claim that their faith alone has the way to peace and joy in life.

Some will tell me that depression, as a medical condition, is outside the scope of the Bible. Fine, but psychologists commonly treat depression with Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which originated from humanists such as Albert Ellis. If you turn to Cognitive Behavior Therapy in severe cases of depression, why would not quite similar principles used by humanists be good for mild discouragement?

There are many ways to happiness. As for me, I have found no greater joy than that of being free–free from the need to believe a religion that my mind has found to be false. I can explore the world around me and learn without the need to force my observations into a preconceived mold.

There is no experience quite like setting the mind free.

Albert Einstein once wrote,

The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.Source:

Do you have that holy curiosity? Are you free to ask questions–even about your faith? Are you free to take intellectual journeys away from the path that you have been taught? I think you will be happier if you choose to be free. 

Robert Ingersoll describes that experience:

When I became convinced that the Universe is natural– that all the ghosts and gods are myths– there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world — not even in infinite space. I was free — free to think, to express my thoughts — free to live to my own ideal — free to live for myself and those I loved — free to use all my faculties, all my senses — free to spread imagination’s wings — free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope — free to judge and determine for myself…

For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought — no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings — no chains for my limbs — no lashes for my back — no fires for my flesh — no master’s frown or threat — no following another’s steps — no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.Source: Why I Am Agnostic – Robert Green Ingersoll, offsite

I agree. I am glad that folks like Ingersoll have taught me how to have a good life. They have taught me how to be free. And now I am passing the baton to you.

Exuberance, an Affirmative Philosophy of Life by Paul Kurtz
20 Atheist Quotes about Joy and Meaning by Valerie Tarico
The Promise Of Humanism by Frederick Edwords

Links on the Good Life

I hope I have helped you to ask questions, that those questions lead you to answers, and that through it all, your mind is set free.

Making Sense Podcast Episode 313: Apocalypse, A Conversation with Bart D. Ehrman

Here’s the link to this episode on Sam Harris’ website.

Here’s the link on Spotify.

MARCH 25, 2023

Sam Harris speaks with Bart D. Ehrman about the prophecies contained in the book of Revelation. They discuss his latest book, Armageddon, and widespread Christian beliefs about the coming end of the world.

Bart D. Ehrman is a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity and a Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The author of six New York Times bestsellers, he has written or edited more than thirty books, including Misquoting JesusHow Jesus Became GodThe Triumph of Christianity, and Heaven and Hell. Ehrman has also created nine popular audio and video courses for The Great Courses. His books have been translated into twenty-seven languages, with over two million copies and courses sold. Website: @BartEhrman

The Covenant School tragedy shows how more prayers will never stop gun violence

Here’s the link to this article by Hemant Mehta.

The Nashville school had plenty of prayers. But that’s no match for a killer armed with assault weapons.

In what has become an all too familiar story, all because Republican officials continue prioritizing guns over humans, another six people are dead after a mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. Three students (all aged nine) and three staffers died because of a shooter armed with “two assault-style weapons and a handgun.”

The entrance to The Covenant School (screenshot via Google Maps)

As of this writing, the motive of the shooter is unknown, so I won’t waste time speculating on that.

But can we at least put to rest the suggestion, that never made any sense, that more prayer is the solution to our gun epidemic?

I’m not talking about the trite, lazy way many politicians offer “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of mass murders, as if that’ll deflect from their own refusal to take action to prevent gun violence. Many people say it as a condolence because they just can’t think of anything else to say. It’s not going away anytime soon.

What can change is prayer as a literal answer to mass shootings.

This act of violence occurred at a private Christian school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America and run as a ministry of the Covenant Presbyterian Church. As far as religious denominations go, very few are more conservative than this one, especially on “culture war” issues. I say that only to point out how this was not a school lacking in prayer. They prayed all the time. Yesterday’s school day even began with a chapel service.

But for years now, one of the many explanations put forth by Republicans who are allergic to gun safety measures is that public schools don’t have forced Christian prayers. If they had prayers, the rhetoric goes, they wouldn’t have these shootings.

Last year, televangelist Kenneth Copeland said all school shootings are the result of the 1963 Supreme Court decision that removed mandatory Christian prayer from public schools, implying we needed to bring it back.

Right Wing Watch @RightWingWatch

Televangelist Kenneth Copeland aired an hour-long special last night asserting that school shootings can be blamed entirely on the 1963 SCOTUS decision removing prayer from public schools: “Now the devil’s going in there and killing children in schools!”

4:02 PM ∙ Sep 8, 2022


Last year, former Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas said prayers would prevent mass shootings:

Acyn @Acyn

Gohmert: Maybe if we heard more prayers from leaders in this country instead of taking god’s name in vain, we wouldn’t have the mass killings like we didn’t have before prayer was eliminated from schools

7:15 PM ∙ Jun 8, 2022


… If we heard more prayers from leaders of this country instead of taking God’s name in vain, we wouldn’t have the mass killings like we didn’t have before prayer was eliminated from school.

A few years ago, immediately after mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said “the lack of thought and prayers is probably the single biggest factor” when it came to gun violence. (Yesterday, proving irony is dead, he lamented how “some will make this a political issue before the names of the victims or the shooter or a motive is even known.”)

And it’s still going on now:

Tony Perkins @tperkins

We are praying for the families who are mourning in the devastating aftermath of this act of evil. We also pray for healing for those who were injured and traumatized. Details will continue to unfold, but we do know that prayer is needed right now.

Metro Nashville PD @MNPDNashville

An active shooter event has taken place at Covenant School, Covenant Presbyterian Church, on Burton Hills Dr. The shooter was engaged by MNPD and is dead. Student reunification with parents is at Woodmont Baptist Church, 2100 Woodmont Blvd. PM ∙ Mar 27, 202347Likes8Retweets

Ron Filipkowski 🇺🇦 @RonFilipkowski

It’s odd that so many countries with church attendance a fraction of ours have almost zero mass shootings.


8:42 PM ∙ Mar 27, 20237,242Likes1,053Retweets

The Covenant School prayed and prayed often. Unfortunately (and predictably), prayers are no match for a killer armed with assault weapons.

Keep in mind that the people calling for more prayer never say that when they actually want something to change. When it comes to elections, Republicans never ask Christians to pray them into office. When it comes to abortion, Republicans never ask Christians to pray that people won’t have them. They know actions speak louder than words. They know passing bills or installing like-minded judges will actually get stuff done.

When it comes to guns, they call for more prayer—or mandatory prayer—because even they know how useless it will be.

It won’t faze them that this shooting happened at a Christian school because they say the same prepared prayer line when shootings occur in churches, synagogues, and mosques.

We don’t need forced prayer in schools now because the gun crisis isn’t the result of forced prayers being removed from schools back then. There was no spike in school shootings in the decades following those Supreme Court decisions upholding religious neutrality in schools. Not until Columbine, really, did we start to see these horrific mass shootings by people who just wanted to unleash their rage and had access to weapons to make it happen.

A lack of prayer cannot be blamed for a uniquely American problem. Other nations don’t have forced Christianity in school. They also struggle with mental illness. They play video games. Yet mass shootings in those countries are incredibly rare. The common denominator in all the massacres we see in our country are the weapons. (Often, the same kind.)

Want to reduce mass shootings? Put more obstacles in the way for gun owners. Especially people who want weapons that can kill several people in seconds. Raise the legal age to own one. Make owners go through a certain amount of training. Register the weapons the way we register cars.

There are many more possible answers to the problem, but conservatives are hell-bent on fighting every single one of them because they love semi-automatic weapons more than children. Dead kids are a price Republicans will gladly pay to continue their violent hobbies. The NRA always takes precedence over the PTA.

We don’t need more guns in the hands of teachers—something that has routinely been proposed by the same people who don’t trust teachers to pick out books. We don’t need the death penalty for shooters as Republican Senator Rick Scott idiotically proposed (despite the Covenant shooter getting gunned down by police, putting a wrench in that plan anyway). We definitely don’t need congress members like the Republican representing Nashville, Rep. Andy Oglesfetishizing guns like they’re a personality quirk and fun for children.

And now, since it appears that the shooter was a transgender former student, you can bet conservatives will cite that as the sole cause. Anything to get attention off their weapons of choice. (Even if it turns out this was some personal vendetta against the Christian school, the murders could not have occurred this easily or quickly without the shooter’s ability to acquire assault weapons.)

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee certainly don’t care. They recently passed a law banning drag shows in the name of protecting kids, but you can bet they’ll do absolutely nothing to protect kids from actual threats to their safety. In fact, it’s the opposite. Those lawmakers have proposed a bill to lower the age to legally carry a handgun in public from 21 to 18.

Prayers aren’t going to fix our problem. They never did.

And any God who lets six people get murdered because not enough people were stroking His Holy Ego isn’t a God worth worshipping anyway.

How to Bear Your Loneliness: Grounding Wisdom from the Great Buddhist Teacher Pema Chödrön

Here’s the link to this article.

“We are cheating ourselves when we run away from the ambiguity of loneliness.”


How to Bear Your Loneliness: Grounding Wisdom from the Great Buddhist Teacher Pema Chödrön

“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” the artist Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary. How much trust and love we wrest from life and lavish upon life is largely a matter of how well we have befriended our existential loneliness — a fundamental fact of every human existence that coexists with our delicate interconnectedness, each a parallel dimension of our lived reality, each pulsating beneath our days.

In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (public library) — her timeless field guide to transformation through difficult times — the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön explores what it takes to cultivate “a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness,” to transmute it into a different kind of “relaxing and cooling loneliness” that subverts our ordinary terror of the existential void.

Sunlit Solitude by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

She writes:

When we draw a line down the center of a page, we know who we are if we’re on the right side and who we are if we’re on the left side. But we don’t know who we are when we don’t put ourselves on either side. Then we just don’t know what to do. We just don’t know. We have no reference point, no hand to hold. At that point we can either freak out or settle in. Contentment is a synonym for loneliness, cool loneliness, settling down with cool loneliness. We give up believing that being able to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or sense of well-being or courage or strength. Usually we have to give up this belief about a billion times, again and again making friends with our jumpiness and dread, doing the same old thing a billion times with awareness. Then without our even noticing, something begins to shift. We can just be lonely with no alternatives, content to be right here with the mood and texture of what’s happening.

In Buddhism, all suffering is a form of resistance to reality, a form of attachment to desires and ideas about how the world should be. By befriending our loneliness, we begin to meet reality on its own terms and to find contentment with the as-is nature of life, complete with all of its uncertainty. Chödrön writes:

We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold on to. Moreover, this is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to finally discover a completely unfabricated state of being. Our habitual assumptions — all our ideas about how things are — keep us from seeing anything in a fresh, open way… We don’t ultimately know anything. There’s no certainty about anything. This basic truth hurts, and we want to run away from it. But coming back and relaxing with something as familiar as loneliness is good discipline for realizing the profundity of the unresolved moments of our lives. We are cheating ourselves when we run away from the ambiguity of loneliness.

Lone Man by Rockwell Kent, 1919. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

So faced, loneliness becomes a kind of mirror — one into which we must look with maximum compassion, one that beams back to us our greatest strength:

Cool loneliness allows us to look honestly and without aggression at our own minds. We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are. Then loneliness is no threat and heartache, no punishment. Cool loneliness doesn’t provide any resolution or give us ground under our feet. It challenges us to step into a world of no reference point without polarizing or solidifying. This is called the middle way, or the sacred path of the warrior.

Complement with Rachel Carson on the relationship between loneliness and creativity and Barry Lopez on the cure for our existential loneliness, then revisit poet May Sarton’s splendid century-old ode to the art of being contentedly alone.