Read to Death blog

Is There a God?

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

We come now to the key question: Is there a God? Here is my answer: I don’t know.

If you have been reading through this series, you have seen that, if God exists, I do not find him doing many of the things that have been claimed about him. He did not create the world in seven days. He did not inspire the Bible. He did not raise Jesus from the dead. He is not preparing a home for us. He is not in intimate control of our circumstances. He is not speaking to us. What is left for him to do?

Some will claim that he created the universe, and that he still occasionally responds with miracles and answers to prayers. Let’s look. If God exists, we certainly would want to get to know more about such a powerful being. So, let’s honestly look at the evidence.

We will begin our search in the present, and work our way backwards through time, looking for evidence for God. We will look for God in four places.

  1. The present.
  2. The first humans.
  3. The origin of life.
  4. The origin of the universe.

1. Is God working today?

Some might suggest that God is performing occasional miracles. Where is the evidence? In the past, many people claimed to have seen miracles, but a funny thing happened as time went on. More and more, people realized that there were scientific answers for the unexplained. In modern times, when people can search claims using science, miracle claims are readily debunked. Past claims of miracles could have been sheer fabrications, or misunderstandings from people who didn’t have the backgrounds to scientifically examine the claims.

Suppose God does work miracles. Why would he limit himself to occasional miracles? If he loves everyone, knows we suffer unjustly, and easily works miracles without getting tired, why do so many of our pleas go unanswered? Even if there were a few answered prayers, how can you explain a God who is so absent?

And why does he not readily display that power for all to see? If God can do anything, and wants us to believe in him, why does he not clearly show himself?

Do you remember the story about Elijah demonstrating God’s power? The Bible says Elijah gathered the people together and set up a contest to see who could call fire down from heaven. According to the Bible, Elijah won the contest. Fire came down and burned up a water-soaked sacrifice on an altar. Could you have God duplicate that feat? No? Why not? If God did it once in answer to prayer, why won’t he do it again?

You might say that you are not allowed to test God. Then why does the Bible say that Elijah was allowed to do that test? If he was allowed to do it, why not you? Why wouldn’t God want to make his power clearly known? Or is it possible he isn’t there?

Years ago, magician James Randi had a challenge where he offered a million dollars to anybody who could prove a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon. Over a thousand people tried to do this. All failed. When put to the test, all the claims of supernatural miracles brought before James Randi failed.

So maybe there are no verifiable miraculous events happening today.


You may tell me that you have personally seen God answer prayer. I once made similar claims. But it is not enough simply to say that you were once sick, prayed, and get better. After all, many people got sick and got better. Some of them did not pray. And so, you would need to show that prayers actually made a difference. Ideally, you would show that people that were prayed for were more likely to recover compared with those who didn’t have anybody pray for them.

In science, we verify claimed cures by testing them. Preferably, we set up a large study in which some people get the proposed cure, some may get alternate cures, and some just get a placebo. Ideally the patients and the examiners do not know who got which treatment. In the end of the study the researchers reveal who was in which treatment group. They compare the results and see which treatment, if any, worked best.

How would prayer work in a controlled study? Would it work better than a placebo? Recently, researchers did several such studies. When the methodology and statistics were examined, they found no good case for prayer. By contrast, new drugs regularly show evidence of being effective after such trials. Why does prayer not also show a clearly significant effect when tested?

Although your experiences may be very convincing to you, many of us see it as a case of special pleading. We would not allow a new drug on the market based solely on the testimony that somebody once tried it and got better. Why should we accept the claim of miracle with no better evidence for it than similar testimonial evidence for quack cures?

Does Prayer Work? by Dariusz Jemielniak
Have Christians Accepted the Scientific Conclusion That God Does Not Answer Intercessory Prayer? by Brian Bolton
Efficacy of Prayer by Irwin and Jack Tessman
How Christians Can Test Their Own Prayers Objectively by John W. Loftus This article is behind a paywall at Free Inquiry. Loftus explains how you can test for yourself if your prayers work.
The Science of Prayer by Victor J. Stenger
Debunking Medical Prayer Studies: Let Us Pray That People Stop Praying by James W. Williamson, M.D.
Miraculous Cures by Anthony Campbell
The Study of Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer by Jeffery A. Dusek, PhD et. al. How to properly study prayer.

Shall we pray? Links to research on the effectiveness of prayer.

In your heart

Others will tell me that they know he lives, for he lives in their heart. I understand. I was once there. I thought my experience proved that it was God working inside me. But I found out later there were many people with quite different experiences, with each thinking his experience proved he was right. Does this prove all are right? No. Simply trying something and feeling better does not prove that what you tried is best for all, or that it is based on truth. Sometimes simply trying, with the help of others, is already a huge part of what it takes to find a better life.

2. Did God create humans?

Many will turn to creation as their proof of God. They will look at something like the greatness of the human mind, and come up with an argument that looks something like this:

  1. There must be an explanation for why the human mind exists.
  2. One explanation is God.
  3. I cannot think of any other good explanations.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is faulty. There is indeed another good explanation for why the human mind exists: evolution. We met up with evolution back at the beginning of this series. There I explained how I became convinced that we evolved. You may perhaps agree that there is evidence for evolution, but you just don’t see how this could happen on its own. Something or someone must have been guiding it. Hence, God is still involved in the process.

What do we see if we look at the fossil record? If God is behind it all, gradually transforming life into the humans he wants, one would expect to see most incremental changes be specifically in that direction. Instead, what we see are widely diverging branches in all directions. It sure looks like evolution is trying many different approaches, some of which work, and some of which just branch out to a dead end. This does not look like anybody is actually guiding the process.

Why all the dead-end paths? Dinosaurs, for example, were a major branch of evolution that later died out. Only one small group of dinosaurs survived, becoming modern birds. All the rest died out with no living descendants. If God was guiding evolution to lead to humans, why bother with thousands of species of dinosaurs over many millions of years? Why did that unspeakable carnage in the struggle for existence need to occur? They all died out anyway. A small group of competitors to the dinosaurs, the early mammals, eventually took over and now rule the world that dinosaurs once dominated.

As another example, we talked earlier about the amazing mammallike reptiles that developed mammal features over many millions of years. If we look closely at them in the fossil record, we see this is not a guided evolution toward modern mammals. Rather, there were a whole series of trials and errors in many directions before the group we now call mammals evolved to dominate.

None of this looks like deliberate, guided evolution. We are not seeing the man in charge here.


Similarly, when we look at human evolution, we see many fossils, but we don’t see a clearly directed path to Homo sapiens. The lines branch out in many different directions.

We are often not sure which of those branches are our direct ancestors. In fact, since there were many species besides the ones we have found in the fossil record so far, then most likely it is one of these unknown species that is our true ancestor. Unknown species were cousin species to the ones we have found. By studying these cousin species, we can get a good idea how we got here. But what we are seeing may just be dead end species that are cousins to our true ancestors.

But aren’t humans so very different from other animals? Were earlier animals really capable of evolving into Homo sapiens? Yes. In essence, our anatomy is very close to the anatomy of other apes. We share 98.8% of our DNA with chimps. Even that part of our anatomy that we value most, our brain, has clear connections to all animal brains. Other animals experience thoughts, emotions and will just like we do. Their brains store memories just like us. There is a quantitative difference, yes, but the forerunners of all these functions are in the other great apes also.

How can an animal we would class as an ape walk out of the forest and become human? It’s a long story. It appears that, in The Great Rift Valley in Africa, a unique stretch of grasslands opened up as the continents moved. Certain apes ventured out of the woods, perhaps searching for food. They found a different world, one in which they could survive using the high intelligence inherent in all apes. Problem solving was so important out here, brains began to evolve for higher intelligence.

Likewise, out in the plain, there was an advantage to standing upright. One could travel more efficiently, look out over the tall grass to see predators, and use one’s hands for many tasks. The combination of increased intelligence with increased availability of the hands worked out quite well in this new environment, leading to strong evolution of these traits.

But intelligence and dexterity alone would have left our ancestors helpless in the vast grassland. They found that, like us, they needed each other. It’s true. We all need somebody to lean on. So, our ancestors, which we refer to as hominids, used their new brainpower for more than just individual problem solving. They used their brains to communicate with other hominids. This turned out to be quite difficult. Understanding others is hard. If you want to communicate effectively with me, you need a big brain. Likewise, our hominid ancestors needed big brains to communicate.

With effective communication, we learn from each other. You learn things from me. I learn things from you. Together, the combined knowledge can lead to new ideas. The end result can be far greater than simply adding two experiences. And so, there is a huge advantage to good communication. This requires a lot of brainpower.

As human cooperation and brainpower became ever more important, brains became larger, and that can be a big problem for the mothers. There is only so much head that can squeeze down the birth canal. Unfortunately, many hominid females must have died in childbirth–may they rest in peace–as evolution drove brain sizes larger.

But, once again evolution found a solution. If the skull can wait to finish its growth until after birth, then it is easier to give birth to a child who will have a large adult brain. For the mothers, this was good news. They could give birth to babies that then grew up with big brains capable of better supporting the mother, her other offspring, and her grandchildren. This solution was a winner.

But there was a big side effect to all this. Hominid babies are quite helpless while their brain grows. They go through a prolonged childhood before emerging as super-intelligent hominid adults. Other animal babies can walk and begin caring for themselves soon after birth. Not so with hominids or our close ancestors. Nevertheless, when intelligence is a primary necessity for survival, the sacrifice can be worth it. The mother devotes herself to her helpless baby, yes, but oh what a wonder this produces.

How can a mother afford to spend all this effort raising children? It takes a village. That’s right. Child raising requires a team: mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, cousins, neighbors, anybody. And that is the beauty of the intelligence and social communication that had evolved. It allowed these hominids to develop as a team, caring for each other and for the young. That led to longer childhoods; to larger brains; to more intelligence; to better communication and cooperation; and back around to longer childhoods and still larger brains. It was an endless upwards spiral.

This led to all the wonderful adaptions of hominids: better tools to hunt and get the needed protein to feed these demanding brains; fires to scare away predators; fires to cook meals; loss of hair, which allowed more persistent hunting without overheating; clothing and blankets to stay warm without all that hair; language; structured social interaction; and yes, partying into the wee hours of the morning while sitting around the campfire. Keep that up for hundreds of thousands of years, and before long we see a big change.

None of that requires direct intervention of God. It is simply the working of nature, driving one evolutionary line in a unique direction after a number of prior adaptions had given that genus a unique survival strategy. No miracle was required.

Human Evolution –Encyclopedia Britannica
Introduction to Human Evolution–Smithsonian Institution
Human Evolution–Berkeley University
Why Are There Still Apes? A debate at Christian Forums site.
How Did Humans Evolve?—
Fossil Hominids— TalkOrigins

Human Evolution Links

3.Did God create the first life?

Years ago, when I was a Creationist, I was losing the argument attacking evolution, so I turned to the origin of life. Here it was much easier to make convincing arguments. For evolution, there was all that pesky evidence that shut me down whenever I tried to bring in creation. But as to the origin of life, here was a gap in which I could insert God. My argument went something like this:

  1. There must be an explanation for why life exists.
  2. One explanation is God.
  3. I cannot think of any other good explanations.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

That argument should look familiar. It is the same argument I wrote above about humans; except this time I changed the word in italics. It is the same argument from personal ignorance: I cannot think of another explanation; thus, the only explanation I can think of must be true.

This argument is also faulty.

It is true that there are limits to what we understand about the origin of life. It happened long ago and did not leave a lot of evidence. But we have learned a lot about this since the 90s, when I had argued for God as the originator of life. And yet, even back then, I could see that my arguments were losing.

Although we do not know exactly how it happened, we have many good hypotheses and understand how many of these processes may have happened. There are other explanations besides God.

A leading view suggests that self-replicating RNA molecules began to compete to be the best self-replicator, building more elaborate support until they put molecules together as cells. See The Origin of Life.

We don’t understand it all. Can we therefore insert God? What we have here is a God of the Gaps argument. We find a gap in our knowledge. In this gap, we conveniently insert God. The problem is that these gaps keep getting smaller as science fills in our previous lack of knowledge.

If you elect this defense of the faith, you keep on needing to back down as the gaps disappear. So, unless you enjoy doing a moonwalk, constantly going backwards while appearing to go forward, I would suggest avoiding arguing for a God of the Gaps. After several steps backwards, arguing for ever smaller gaps, you may eventually come to the point that I did, where I could no longer take myself seriously when moonwalking backwards while pretending I was making progress defending God.

From Soup to Cells: The Origin of Life at Berkeley University site
Biogenesis and the Laws of Evidence by Richard Carrier

Biogenesis links

4. Did God create our universe?

So maybe we just better go back further in time, back beyond the story of life on earth, and ask about the beginning of the universe. How could a universe pop up out of nothing? We might frame an argument for this based on the format we had used above:

  1. There must be an explanation for why our universe exists.
  2. One explanation is God.
  3. I cannot think of any other good explanations.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

You may only be able to think of one explanation for the universe–God. But God is not the only possible universe maker. Perhaps natural forces could also do it.

So, before tracing back to the ultimate cause of everything, let’s look at how whatever or whoever it was that made the universe did it.

Let’s cut to the chase and state how the universe began: with a Big Bang. Regardless of who or what caused the Big Bang, we know the broad overview of what it (or he) did. First there was no universe. Then boom, a Big Bang. And the rest is history.

How do we know there was a Big Bang? Well, for one thing, when we look at distant galaxies, we find that they are all soaring away from us at a high rate of speed. This is exactly what we would expect if they had all originated from matter that was concentrated at the same spot and scattered in the Big Bang. In fact, if we trace back the trajectories of galaxies, we find they all came from the same spot in space 13.72 billion years ago. (That’s right, we now know the answer to 4 decimal places.) They must have all left that location simultaneously at high speed in different directions.

One of the many galaxies out there.

As the galaxies spread out, gravity slowed them down. We can conclude that they must have been going quite fast when the scattering started and slowed down gradually as gravity pulled backwards.

If we trace back to the time when the universe was about 1 second old, they would have been bunched together in a huge mass of high velocity particles at 10 billion degrees C. At that temperature neutrons and protons would have been traveling far too fast to make atoms.

But as the universe expanded and cooled, there would have been numerous atomic “marriages”, as particles settled down to form atoms. Almost all of the atoms that were created at that time would have been one of the three lightest elements, hydrogen, helium, and lithium. We can even calculate the ratios of each element created at those high temperatures. Most protons would stay as single protons and unite with one electron to form a hydrogen atom. About 25% of protons would pair up with another proton and with neutrons to form a helium nucleus. And about 1 in a billion would join with 2 other protons, ending up in the nucleus of a lithium atom.

We can compare this to what we observe today. Obviously, those elemental ratios have changed as time marched on. Much hydrogen has fused in stars to become helium. We know how fast this is happening, and so, if we trace back into the past, we can calculate the ratios these elements would have had 13.72 billion years ago. We find, to a high degree of accuracy, that the ratios predicted by the Big Bang theory (the science, not the show) correspond to the ratios that physical observations today tell us must have originally been there. The two calculations agree to a remarkable degree.

So how can you explain this complete correlation between the physics of a Big Bang and what is actually there today? If a creator did it without that superheated mass of the Big Bang, and he could have used a different ratio, why did he pick that exact ratio that the Big Bang would have created?

It is similar to the conclusion we reached at the start of this series where we saw that the earth is either many millions of years old or was created deceptively to look old. Ruling out deception, we concluded that the earth was old.

Similarly, if we rule out a God that deceptively made the element ratios such that they matched a hot Big Bang, then we are left with the conclusion that the elements came from the Big Bang.

A third verification of the Big Bang is the fact that we can see the background radiation from the Big Bang, exactly as predicted.

I won’t explore all the details of the Big Bang here. There are many sources with more details if you are interested.

A Universe from Nothing book by Lawrence M. Krauss.
The Big Bang at NASA
Spontaneous Creation of the Universe from Nothing He Dongshan, et. al.
Quantum Fluctuations in Cosmology by Alan H. Guth

Big Bang Links

Could it be caused by nothing?

Our concern here is not so much the details of the Big Bang, but what caused it. What or who caused it to happen?

One obvious answer is, “God did it”. That is certainly a possibility.

Another answer is that “Nothing did it”. Wait, what? Yes, I said what I mean, maybe Nothing did it. Please note that I capitalize the word Nothing. For it turns out, in our universe, there is no such thing as a spot that is devoid of all forces, all energy, and all matter. Something exists everywhere, even if it is no more than the presence of certain laws of physics. So when I refer to Nothing, I am referring to the specific state of emptiness that is as close to true nothingness as is possible.

The emptiness of outer space is not truly a state of no-thing. For instance, there is that strange dark energy that permeates all of our universe. This dark energy acts in such a way that it tends to force the universe to spread out. Not only is this dark energy within our universe present at every point in space, but it appears to be everywhere, even outside our universe. As the universe gets larger, it contains more volume. Since dark energy is everywhere, the universe is constantly getting more total dark energy as it grows.

A strange thing happened as the universe grew and incorporated more dark energy. Dark energy now overwhelms the rest of the universe. In fact, the total dark energy in the entire observable universe is now 70 times the total energy in the familiar matter that we think of when we think of the universe.

Earlier, we said that the expansion of the universe had slowed down since the initial jolt of the Big Bang. But scientists have also found that, as more and more dark energy is being incorporated into the universe, and as this additional dark energy acts to accelerate the expansion of the universe, the universe is now accelerating. And as it accelerates, it incorporates dark energy even faster, and that makes it accelerate even faster. We keep going outward at faster speeds. Buckle up. We are off for the ride of our lives!

All that comes from the dark energy that inherently exists in all empty space. Empty space is not no-thing.

Not only is Nothing full of dark energy, but quantum mechanics predicts that Nothing regularly creates matter and anti-matter. And it turns out that, in every atom of your body, electrons and anti-electrons pairs are constantly bursting into existence, and then, almost instantly, annihilating each other. For that moment in time there is enough energy involved in this process to affect the energy state of atoms.

If we calculate the energy of atoms without taking these particles into account, our calculations are always inaccurate. But if we include these short-lived particles, we find our calculations reflect the actual energies of atoms to extremely high precision. Thus, they must really be bursting in and out of existence, just as quantum mechanics predicts.

So yes, even in empty space, matter and its evil twin, anti-matter, are constantly coming into existence. Most such particles quickly annihilate each other, but it is at least theoretically possible that some of them have continued to exist. The anti-particle could be swept into a black hole, while the particle itself lives on as a truly new something that came out of Nothing.

Yes, Virginia, in the cosmos there is indeed such a thing as a free lunch!

Similarly, at the Big Bang, we would have had these same quantum mechanics and all its weirdness at play. Quantum mechanics could have caused particles to come into existence.

In addition, we find that our universe in its earliest phases was experiencing a tremendous stretching of space-time itself, a period that we refer to as cosmic inflation. It was a brief period of time, far quicker than the blink of an eye. It lasted less than 10-32 seconds.

As the end of this inflationary period approached, inflation stopped in certain spots quicker than other spots. It was as though those spots had suddenly become frozen and no longer participated in the rapid cosmic inflation that was going on all around them. This caused immense quantum effects in these areas that were dropping out of the inflationary expansion. The quantum events associated with this sudden stoppage could have caused untold billions of particles, both matter and anti-matter, to come into existence.

As the universe continued to expand and cool, these spots multiplied. It was like popcorn: slow popping at first, and then popping everywhere. Eventually inflation stopped completely, and we were left with a boiling broth of matter and anti-matter.

It appears that, for every 1 billion particles of matter created this way, there were also about 999,999,999 anti-particles. As the universe expanded and cooled, most of these particles found mating anti-particles and annihilated each other. But the bachelors, so to speak, lived on to become the universe as we know it.

As mentioned before, the plasma started at temperatures over 10 billion degrees C. How did it get so hot? It appears that, when quantum mechanics creates particles, they start with a velocity equal to their escape velocity. The escape velocity is that speed which is just enough that, if a particle left the brew, it could continue to infinity before gravity finally stopped it. Any slower, and gravity would catch up to it and pull it back down where it started. Any faster, and the particles would easily sail away, to infinity and beyond!

So, the particles were traveling very fast. Since temperature is simply a measure of the average velocity squared of all the particles, that means the brew was very hot.

As the state of this plasma dropped below 10 billion degrees C, the particles then congealed into atoms. These atoms later combined into molecules, then lumps, and finally into stars and planets.

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. See NASA’s Webb Delivers Deepest Infrared Image of Universe Yet.
This is a cluster of galaxies about 4.6 billion light years away.

It is possible that this interaction of cosmic inflation and quantum mechanics was much larger in extent than just our universe. Possibly, as our universe “froze” and no longer experienced this wild, inflationary stretching of space-time, all the rest of nearby space-time beyond our universe possibly continued to stretch. And events similar to the Big Bang could have then been happening all over that vast expanse of space-time. We call this a multiverse.

These events could have been separated so far that, if our entire universe were drawn as the size of a period on a map the size of our universe, the nearest neighboring universe might be on the other end of that map. And the total expansion of space time could be so rapid that even light could not possibly make it from one universe to the other. We would never be able to detect any of these other universes. For all we know, we might just be in only one of the possibly infinite number of universes that actually existed or will exist.

If there are many universes being created, they may all be different. They may actually have different physics. Some may be duds, quickly disappearing. Others, like ours, may expand to the point where they can support life. In the dud universes, there is nobody around to observe that space-time creates dud universes. In universes like ours, there are people that ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing at all?”

So, scientists agree that something could come from Nothing in a process similar to that described above. Quantum mechanics produces particles. Empty space itself is full of energy. And a universe that quickly decelerates from cosmic inflation, as our early universe has, could experience a major creation of matter due to quantum effects. All this could have created matter that would be at high temperature and fly rapidly outward to form a vast universe.

This was a brief introduction to the Big Bang. We don’t know exactly how it happened, but we are learning more about it all the time.

What caused the cause of the Big Bang?

For our purposes, we are not so much concerned with how the Big Bang happened, as we are concerned with the ultimate explanation for it. Where did quantum mechanics, cosmic inflation, and all other physical actions come from?

Perhaps quantum mechanics and cosmic inflation always existed. Perhaps it could not be otherwise. Perhaps these physical realities just keep on creating universes.

Or perhaps other physical forces caused quantum mechanics and cosmic inflation to begin. Perhaps there is a multiverse of multiverses. Perhaps there is some innate source of multiverses that is creating multiverses with different physics. These multiverses could be creating universes, each with perhaps distinct versions of the inherited physics of the multiverse they came from.

Ah, but what caused the source of the source of the source of the multiverses? What is the ultimate thing that drove this all? We don’t know. Perhaps there is an infinite series of causation that never ends. Or perhaps, at root, there is a circular causation where A causes B that causes C that causes A ad infinitum. Or perhaps there is some root cause of everything, A, that simply is, and could not be otherwise. Perhaps the root cause is nothing more than, “Things happen.”

Regardless of whether the root cause is a distinct something (A) or a circular something (ABC), an infinite regress, or things just happening, let’s call this root cause of any physics the first cause.

This first cause could either have a mind or not have a mind.

If it has a mind, how could that mind remember anything before there was any matter that can be arranged to save the memories? All memories we know of (brains, computers, books, etc.) consist of an arrangement of atoms that document things. How can a creator’s mind do this, if there is not yet any matter to arrange to preserve those memories?

If the first cause, the process that started it all, had a mind, we should probably call it God. If it didn’t have a mind, we probably should not call it God.

Did the root cause have a mind? Would it be proper to call it God? Ultimately, we don’t know. Hence, regarding God, I am agnostic.

The Problem with Nothing by Richard Carrier
Multiverse Cosmological Models by Paul Davies
Six Arguments that a Multiverse is More Probable Than a God by Richard Carrier
Cosmological Arguments on the Secular Web. This has many counterarguments to the first cause argument.
The God Impossible by Richard Carrier. This explores the question of how a mind could exist if there was no matter.
Six Arguments That a Multiverse Is More Probable Than a God by Richard Carrier

Links about the multiverse and God

Is God knowable?

We could get into endless discussion of what or who is behind it all. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Even if a God exists, I find no way of knowing what He wants. I don’t find that the Bible or any book reliably tells us what God wants. And I don’t find that God speaks to us and tells us what he wants. So even if God exists, I have no way of knowing what he wants.

If it turns out the maker of the process that made our universe has a mind, is still alive, and wants to communicate with us, then yes, of course, I would love to be introduced. But as I find no evidence that such a being is communicating, I am not expecting to be contacted.

And besides, even if God did try to speak to me, how would I know it was God? Sure, something like a seemingly miraculous Internet feed could suddenly come through a wormhole in space, complete with unimaginable knowledge and the ability to do things we would see as miracles. Would that prove that the source created the universe? No. It could simply be a super-advanced space alien with powers far beyond human powers. How would we ever know it was the source of the processes that started the universe?

And for that matter, even if you went to heaven after you died, how would you know that the being in charge of this paradise in which you find yourself is actually the originator of the processes that made the universe? Could you prove that the ruler of your paradise was not simply a highly advanced space alien with amazing powers? You would not know. Even though this ruler of this paradise had a Scotty that had beamed you up to this paradise as you were dying on earth, how would you know that there is not actually somewhere a more powerful being than him? How would you know that there are not more powerful beings out there, who will eventually attack your paradise and conquer it? How could you be sure you are on the winning side?

And how would the ruler of this heaven even know that he was really the ultimate God? If a different, more powerful God existed in some other part of spacetime beyond his knowledge, how would he know? If he couldn’t know that which is beyond his knowledge, is it possible that within that “unknown unknown”, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it, there was some being greater than him?

In summary, I find no convincing evidence that God exists. I find no evidence when I look at the present, at evolution, at the origin of life, or at the origin of matter. If God does exist, I find no way of knowing what he wants. And if someday a being claiming to be the omnipotent creator contacts me, I would have no way to know that he actually was the omnipotent first cause, the creator of all universes.

How COVID-19 Falsifies the God Hypothesis by Gary Whittenberger

other links

All of that is a diversion from the business of living life. We have all we need to make our own lives productive, to build meaning and purpose in life. If a powerful, all-knowing someone from space reveals himself, great, I will be first in line to ask to meet him and learn from him, regardless of whether he actually initiated our universe. But until then, I live my life based on the information I do have.

We need to ask one more question before I complete this series. Some would think we are lost in hopeless despair without our faith. Are we lost without hope? I will finish this series by looking at hope.

Dear Christians, if the Holy Spirit is Your Teacher and Guide . . .

Here’s the link to this article by Bruce Gerencser.

indwelling of the holy spirit

Evangelicals believe that the moment a sinner is saved, God, in the person of the Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost, comes into the born-again sinner’s life and lives — somewhere, no one can say for sure where — inside of that person. This is commonly called the “indwelling of the Spirit of God.” Every true Christian® is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 6:19 states that the bodies of Christians belong to God; that these bodies are the temple, the residence, of the Holy Ghost.

What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?

In Romans 8:7-10,13,14,16, the Apostle Paul says that Christians have the Spirit of God dwelling inside of them.

Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please GodBut ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God…The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:

Those who do not have the Spirit’s indwelling are not Christian. How can someone know he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit? While Evangelicals tend to focus on right beliefs as evidence of salvation, Paul says that behavior is evidence of whether someone is led by the Spirit. Those who are in the flesh (unbelievers) cannot please God, but, according to Paul, Christians are “not in the flesh, but in the Spirit.” Paul speaks of death for those who live according to the flesh. True Christians® are to mortify (put to the death) the flesh. This mortification of the body brings life, both in the present and the afterlife.

Reflecting the Gnosticism found throughout the Bible, Paul tells the Church at Corinth that the things of God cannot be known apart from the indwelling of the Holy Ghost:

But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:10-14)

The natural man (non-Christian) cannot understand the things of God. Supposedly, only Christians can understand and correctly interpret the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. The Bible is the only book ever written that cannot be understood just by reading it. Unbelievers, according to Evangelicals, have sin-darkened hearts and are in bondage to the ruler of this earth, the prince and power of the air, Satan. According to the Bible, non-Christians are deaf and blind to Biblical truth. No unbeliever can understand the Bible without first being saved and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman tackles unbelievers not understanding the Bible in a post titled Does a Person Need the Holy Spirit to Interpret the Bible?

I’ve never found it at all convincing that a person needs the Holy Spirit in order to interpret the Bible. As an agnostic, of course, I don’t believe in the Holy Spirit (since I don’t believe in God). But even when I did believe in the Holy Spirit, I thought that it was silly to claim that a person could not interpret the Bible correctly without the Spirit – for a couple of reasons that have always struck me as virtually irrefutable.

The first is this: if it’s true that the Holy Spirit is the one who provides the correct interpretation of Scripture, then why is it that so many people who claim to have the Holy Spirit cannot agree on what the Bible means? This is simply an empirical fact that is not open to dispute. Different Christian interpreters of the Bible, all of them claiming to be guided by the Holy Spirit based on humble prayer, come away with diametrically opposed interpretations of major important passages, of minor less important passages, and of major biblical themes and doctrines – just about everything.

I saw this vividly when I was myself a fundamentalist Christian: clear and hard-core different interpretations of major issues, by devout and spiritual Christians, based on how the New Testament was being read. As a poignant example: I had come out of a charismatic background where we believed that “speaking in tongues” was the clearest manifestation of God’s spirit, based on our reading of Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. At Moody Bible Institute, on the other hand, we were taught that charismatic activity, and especially the speaking in tongues, was a demonic activity and that the charismatic group from which I had come was misinterpreting these passages. Well, which is it? Both groups claimed to be representing the views of the Holy Spirit that had guided their reading of Scripture.

I could point to passage after passage after passage where well-meaning and clear headed Christians who claim to be given their understanding by the Spirit provide two, three, or four contradictory interpretations of the passage. So what is the evidence that the Spirit assists in interpretation?

The second reason I’ve never bought this is that as a complete agnostic who does not believe in the Holy Spirit, I have studied passages and come to the very same conclusions as those who claim the Spirit has told them what the passages mean. If I “need” the Holy Spirit to interpret these passages, why have I interpreted them in the same way that people who have the Holy Spirit has interpreted them? Seems like I’ve done all right without the Spirit.

And there’s a reason for that. Whatever you think about God, the Holy Spirit, or the Bible – the Bible is written in human languages following human rules of spelling and grammar and coming out of completely human situations lived in by human authors. To interpret the Bible you need to be a human, one who can read words and understand sentences. Even if the Bible is inspired, it is inspired in human words and is, therefore, susceptible of human understanding. My view is that the Spirit does not contribute to the process.

Ehrman is quite right when he says that Christian confusion over exactly what the Bible says belies the notion that the Holy Spirit lives inside Evangelicals, acting as some sort of divine GPS or search engine. According to many Evangelicals, all they need to do is say, Lord lead me/show me the way, and BOOM! their lives follow the exact course mapped out by the Holy Spirit. The same goes for understanding the Bible. Evangelicals metaphorically type their questions into God’s Google app, and BOOM! the Holy Ghost leads them to the exact book/chapter/verse answer. Awesome, right? No need to think. Just “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” with God promising “every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” (Matthew 7:7,8)

If the Holy Spirit lives inside EVERY believer, why can’t Christians even agree on the basics: salvation, baptism, communion, and whether masturbation is a sin. There are thousands of Christian sects, each guided by the Holy Spirit, each believing that their Jesus is the way, truth, and life and their little merry band of believers is the holder of the faith once delivered to the saints. Christianity might — I say might — be taken more seriously by non-Christians if sects/churches/pastors all spoke with one voice. But, they don’t. Instead, Christianity is rife with internecine warfare, with sects and churches competing with each other over money — err — I mean souls. Jesus said that the world would know that people were his followers by their love for one another. Hey Christians . . . how’s that loving one another thing working out?

Supposedly, being indwelt by the Holy Ghost gives Christians the requisite power necessary to live above sin (transgression of the law of God) and the world. I say supposedly, because from my seat in the atheist pew, I don’t see any difference between Christians and non-Christians. Am I missing something here, Christians? If all the above is true, if God the Holy Spirit, really does live inside of you and is your teacher and guide, why is it that Christians don’t live any differently from unbelievers? If, as John says, in 1 John 2:3,4,15, 29, 3:6:

….we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him…. Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him….ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him….whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.

Can anyone really say that he or she is a Christian? 1 John 3:8 states that anyone who sins is of the devil! Can someone be a Christian AND a child of the devil? At this point, Evangelical readers likely will say, Bruce, Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven. Christians are works in progress.  Wait a minute, what about all the verses mentioned above? What about what 1 John 3:10 says, “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.” John says the difference between God’s children and Satan’s children is behavior. The writer of the book of Matthew says in chapter 25 that on judgment day it will be what people did and did not do that will determine where they spend eternity.

Video Link

I am sure that I will hear from Evangelicals who will castigate me for “wrongly” interpreting the Bible. After all, I don’t have the Holy Spirit living inside of me, so how can I possibly tell others what the Bible says and means? Well, I just did. So much for needing the Holy Ghost to know what the Bible says. The aforementioned verses aren’t ambiguous, so what conclusions should unbelievers come to when observing how Evangelicals live their day-to-day lives? At best, we can conclude that Christians are, in every way, just like unbelievers; that if the Holy Spirit lives inside of believers, he is fast asleep or on vacation; that Christianity has no moral or ethical authority, given that Christians themselves can’t practice what they preach.

If you are an Evangelical, think about the notion that God lives inside of you; that the Bible is some sort of Gnostic book that can’t be understood by six-sevenths of the human race; that only the saved understand what the Bible teaches. Do you REALLY believe these things? Do you really believe that the moment I left Christianity that I lost the ability to understand the teachings of the Bible; that decades of reading and study disappeared from my memory, never to be remembered again? In what other realm do we see this kind of thinking?

Sadly, Evangelicals, unlike liberal and progressive Christians, stubbornly hold on to their literalistic interpretations of the Bible — interpretations that force them to endorse, support, and defend silly beliefs, no matter how stupid and ignorant it makes them look. There is little that any of us can do to reach people who think they know the punch line for the biggest joke in history. While mere worldlings feast on the plethora of literature available today, Evangelicals scour the pages of a book deemed inexhaustible, hoping to find Bronze age wisdom for twenty-first-century living.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Here’s a related article by Bruce you might want to read.

Hearing the “Voice of God”

Here’s the link to this article by Bruce Gerencser.

hearing the voice of god

Spend enough time around Evangelicals and you will learn that not only do they talk to God, but they also “hear” God talk to them. In any other setting, “hearing” voices will land you in the hospital on a 72-hour psych hold, but if the voice being heard is GOD, then hearers of this silent utterance are considered sane, rational beings. Evangelicals believe God not only speaks to them through the words in the Bible, but he also audibly, yet silently, speaks to them during prayer and meditation and at random moments throughout the day. Evidently, the Christian God is able to carry on millions of silent conversations with his followers at the same time. Awesome, right? Too bad this same God is not very good at making sure everyone he is talking to is hearing the same message.

Evangelicals say they hear the voice of God, but often other followers of Jesus hear different things, often wildly contrary to what God told someone else. I noticed this particularly during church business meetings. Members were expected to pray and seek the will of God on the matter of business before the church. After, “hearing” from God, members were expected to be of one mind — Greek for “agreeing with the pastor.” As anyone who has ever attended a Baptist business meeting will tell you, unity of mind is rarely on display. If everyone is supposedly “hearing” the voice of God, why are there so many competing viewpoints? What color should we paint the auditorium, the pastor asks? Let’s seek God’s mind on the matter! You would think that God would tell everyone BLUE. Nope. God, ever the jokester, whispers to various members different colors, sowing discord among the brethren.

Years ago, I started Somerset Baptist Church — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregation in southeast Ohio. The congregation first met in an empty storefront. After a few months, we moved to what was then called the Landmark Building. We rented the entire second floor for $200 a month. One day, I was out and about and stumbled upon an old abandoned Methodist church building — five miles east of Somerset, on top of Sego Hill. I made some inquiries about the building, and found out that it was for sale. I told the congregation about my exciting find, asking that they would pray about us buying the building. After a week or so, I held a business meeting, thinking God had told congregants the same thing he told me: buy the building! Imagine my surprise when it became clear to me that the church was NOT in favor of buying the building. I was so depressed. How could they NOT hear God’s voice? I thought. Yes, the building was $20,000, a large sum for a fledgling church, but I believed God never ordered anything he didn’t pay for. Dejected, I called the Methodists and told them we wouldn’t be buying the building.

Several weeks later, the Methodists called me and asked me if the church had changed its mind about buying the building. Before I could respond, the man said, make us an offer, Bruce. I shot a quick prayer to Jesus, asking him what I should do. As sure as I am sitting here today, I heard him say, offer them $5,000. I thought, $5,000? The Methodists will never accept such a low offer. But, not wanting to disappoint Jesus, I made the $5,000 offer. The man said, we will talk it over. Sure enough, a few days later, the Methodists called to tell me that they accepted my offer! I thought, PRAISE JESUS, we are going to have our own building. All I had to do is convince the congregation that the voice they thought they heard at the business meeting was not God’s; either that, or in the intervening weeks God had changed his mind. Fortunately, the church heard MY voice, and we bought the building.

Silly story, I know, but I think it aptly illustrates the idea that God speaks to people. I wanted something — a church building — and I got my way. I heard the voice of God countless times during the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry, and, without exception, what God was saying almost always perfectly aligned with what I wanted, needed, or desired. God’s will be done, as Evangelicals are wont to say, was actually Bruce’s will be done. 

In late 1993, Pastor Pat Horner and Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas, extended to me an invitation to become their co-pastor. I prayed about the matter, deciding that God wanted me to stay as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church. I “wanted” to move to Texas, but God said NO, or so I told myself anyway. Several weeks later, I was pondering the future of Somerset Baptist, and all of a sudden, I started crying. In that moment God spoke to me, telling me he wanted me to move my family to San Antonio, Texas so I could become the co-pastor of Community Baptist. Wait a minute, didn’t God “tell” you several weeks before that he wanted me to stay in Ohio? Yes, he did, but evidently, he changed his mind. Never mind the fact that the Bible says, I am the Lord thy God and I changeth not and Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I called Pat Horner and asked if the offer was still open. It was. You see, God had told them that I was going to be their co-pastor, so me — uh, I mean God — changing his mind was just confirmation to them of what he said to them. Two months later, I packed up my family and worldly goods and moved to Texas. My tenure at Community lasted all of seven months — an unmitigated disaster.

Another silly story, I know, but it again illustrates how crazy it is to think God “speaks” to anyone. God didn’t tell me not to move, nor did he tell me to move. There is no God, so the only voice I was hearing was my own. The NO and YES were in my mind and reflected the struggle I was having about whether I wanted to continue pastoring Somerset Baptist Church. I spent eleven years at Somerset Baptist, living in poverty the whole time. For five years, my family and I — all eight of us — lived in a 12×60 mobile home fifty feet from the church building. I was worn out, burned out, and tired of being poor, yet I loved the congregation. What was it then that caused me to change my mind?

We heated our mobile home with coal and wood. We also heated the church and school building the same way.  We were running out of wood, so I asked a man in the church if he could get some wood for us to burn, He said, sure. Several days later, the man dumped a pickup load of wood in the parking lot and quickly left. I thought, it would have been nice if he had stacked it, but okay, he at least got the wood for us. I gathered up some of the wood, took it inside, and put it in our Warm Morning stove. I quickly found out that wood was unusable — too wet and green to burn. At first, I was angry over the wet wood, but then I began to cry. This one event — not a big deal in and of itself — pushed me over the proverbial edge. I was done. Is it any surprise, then, that God changed his mind and told me he wanted me to move to Texas? A good salary and a new 14×70 mobile home awaited me. A congregation thrilled over the prospect of me being their co-pastor awaited me. A young, fast-growing congregation awaited me. New challenges and opportunities awaited me. I said NO to all of this because I had a sense of loyalty to the people at Somerset Baptist. Most of them had been members for years and walked beside me as we built the church. I felt guilty over thinking about leaving them so I could have a better life; so my family would no longer have to live in poverty. But when the wet, green wood was dumped in the parking lot, my thinking changed. Enough, I thought, and God agreed with me.

Now, I am sure that my critics will pick these stories apart, suggesting that I was the problem, not God; that the voice I was hearing was self, and that if I had been more spiritual, I would have heard God’s voice and he was would have directed me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. I don’t believe that for a moment. There is no God, so I couldn’t have heard his voice. All my decisions reflected were the struggles I was having over life and the ministry. The voice I heard was my own, giving life to my wants, needs, and desires.

Bruce, I don’t care what happened in your life, I KNOW God speaks to me. How do you KNOW it is God’s voice you are hearing? What evidence can you give for such a claim? Why do God’s silent utterances to you almost always match your own wants, needs, and desires? Have you ever stopped to think that maybe, just maybe the voice you are hearing is your own? Yes, the Bible contains stories about God speaking to people — from God speaking to Moses from a burning bush, to God telling Abraham to murder his son Isaac, to God speaking to the crowd at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus told his disciples: my sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. How can any of us know that it is God speaking? There’s absolutely zero evidence for God speaking to anyone. Evangelicals are free to believe that they have heard the voice of God, but they can’t expect non-believers to accept their stories as true without some sort of verifiable proof.

Believing God speaks to you is a matter of faith, a faith I do not have. Most often, hearing the voice of God is harmless, but there are times when hearing his voice leads to dangerous, harmful behavior — including murdering your children or taking a twelve-year-old girl as your virgin bride. Evangelical missionaries John Allen Chau and Charles Wesco lost their lives because they believed that they had heard the voice of God commanding them to go reach the lost for Jesus in dangerous foreign lands. Why would God tell these men to leave their houses and lands and go to the mission field only to kill them days later? What a cruel, schizophrenic God. Or, perhaps God has nothing to do with this; perhaps the only voices these men heard were their own; perhaps their deaths rest on the shoulders of the myriad of pastors, professors, and parents who whispered in their ears about the wonders of serving God in a foreign land and the rewards that would await them if they became missionaries.

Think I am wrong? Just ask God to tell me.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Does God Speak to Us?

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

unrecognizable man praying in church in sunlight

There was a time when I was busy doing what I thought was the Lord’s work. I remember one church program that I was excited about. I was busy trying to get the program started. But other people at my church disagreed with me. They did not think God was on my side, so they worked behind the scenes to oppose my plans.

What did I do? I prayed. Do you know what God told me? That’s right, God told me that he was on my side. (It seemed to me that I was hearing a lot from God in those days.) And I read the Bible. God spoke to me when I read, or so it seemed to me. What did he say? He said he was on my side. He said that those that opposed me were wrong. I was right. God himself told me that I was right. Or so it seemed to me.

Across town there were other people who also talked to God. They also were serious about serving God. They didn’t like my plans. So ,they prayed to God. Guess what happened when they prayed? That’s right. God spoke to them. He told them that I was wrong. He told them that they were right. He told them to stop me from doing what I wanted to do. Surely, they were doing the right thing. God himself was on their side. Or so it seemed to them.

I look back on it all and smile. But it was not funny back then. It was quite frustrating.

I see it over and over. Why is it that God always seems to be saying exactly what people expect to hear?

God-and-country fundamentalists hear God in their prayers. He tells them to go to war and kill evil people–at least that’s what they tell us they hear. But then Mennonites also hear God. He tells them to condemn war and oppose the hawkish Christians.

Charismatics hear God in their prayers leading them to speak in tongues. Others hear God telling them to condemn the charismatic movement.

Gay Christians hear God telling them to build churches that support alternate lifestyles. Anti-gay churches hear God telling them to oppose gay churches.

A thought comes to mind. Perhaps at least some of these people are not really hearing God. Perhaps gullible people misunderstand when they think they hear from God. Do you agree? Good. So tell me: Should you and I include ourselves in that list of people who might possibly be deceived? If others are mistaken when they think they hear from God, maybe we are too.

You may tell me that you have had a wonderful experience of God’s Spirit. Perhaps you have felt a sweet inner peace, an unexplainable joy, a deep conviction, or an overwhelming sense of communion with God.

Please understand that many have had similar experiences. I doubt if you think they all were experiencing God. Catholics, Fundamentalists, Charismatics, Anti-Charismatics, gays, anti-gays, hawks, doves, Messianic Jews, Neo-Nazis, Universalists, narrow-minded bigots, witchdoctors, and the robed guys at the airport have all claimed similar experiences. Do you understand how some of these experiences were only the result of the mental processes inside the minds of the believers, and were not the direct hand of God? If you can understand that the experiences felt in a cultic ritual may not be of God, then you should be able to understand why others might think that your experience might not be the direct act of God.

Surely God’s Spirit was not simultaneously inspiring both Catholics and Protestants to kill each other in Ireland. Surely you must agree that at least some of those combatants were mistaken.

It is interesting to talk to somebody who hears from God. He is not wrong. God is on his side. To change his mind would mean disobeying God. He has a personal connection with God, a direct line to the throne. If he doesn’t know what to do, he can just ask God. And God reportedly gives him an inner feeling that directs his paths. Once he feels God directing in his heart, how can he possibly listen to those who suggest he do otherwise? How could he possibly be wrong?

Hearing the Voice of God by Bruce Gerencser
Dear Christians, if the Holy Spirit is Your Teacher and Guide by Bruce Gerencser
Psychic Epistemology: The Special Pleading of William Lane Craig by John W. Loftus

LInks about hearing from God

I know what it is like. I used to be there. But things have changed. I no longer look for an inner feeling in my spirit to lead me. I no longer assume that feelings inside are directly caused by God. I now use the process of observation and reason to determine what is best. And I ask a lot of questions. I find that rational thought is better than trusting an inner feeling. And it helps to keep me humble.

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.

Is God in Control?

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

Collapsed buildings in the World

On September 11, 2001, millions of people watched in horror as the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Why did God allow it to happen? Many were praying for God to protect their loved ones. And yet they watched the dreadful destruction occur. Why did this happen? Did God not love those people in the towers and in the planes? Did God not have the power to stop it? Christians would certainly say he had the power to prevent it. But he did not.

What about the thousands that died that day? You might suggest that God had some mysterious purpose in letting them die. Perhaps their time on earth was done.

Imagine the details that God would have had to control to assure that only those people whose time had come were killed. What if the planes had hit several stories higher or lower? What if the flights had been delayed 10 minutes? What if somebody in the towers had gotten stuck in traffic that morning? What if the planes had hit at a different angle? All these things would have altered the death toll. If God had planned for certain people to die that day, then he must have guided all these details. He must have guided the planes to hit the buildings exactly where they did. In other words, God would have had to have been in control of those airplanes, and the terrorists were merely doing what God directed. All of this is of course absurd. Such a God is a micro-manager. Such a God wanted those planes to hit the towers where they did.

And so, I conclude that the reason these people died had nothing to do with God having a purpose in them dying. It just happened. Random forces were at work. God was not in control.

Some would tell me he allowed it to happen to punish people. Did all those that died that day deserve to be punished? How did God control it so only those who deserved to die were killed?

Why does God allow suffering? Why do 3 million children starve every year? Why is there so much disease? Why does God not stop terrorists? These questions have been asked many times.

And it is good to ask such questions. A good God would expect us to ask questions.

Somehow, God is said to have a reason for it all. If a car misses us, that must have been God’s protection. If it hits us, somebody will say God is trying to teach us something. Everything must have a purpose. Otherwise, we are left with a God who refuses to help.

You and I would not respect a policeman who sees a rape about to take place and did nothing. It would be hard to respect someone who could help and refuses to do anything.

Where was God on 9/11? People cannot bear the thought that God might have just stood back and not cared. So, we are told that God must surely have had a purpose.

If God was in control of what happened to the people in those planes on September 11, and if he wanted them to die this way, then this event was not a tragedy. It was God’s will. But we all agree that it was a tragedy. So, it therefore was not a good God’s will. Things happened that a good God would not have wanted. For whatever reason, God, if he exists, did not take control.

Now if God did not want it to be this way, and could have stopped it, how can you explain his actions? Many people have been blamed for that day. We have heard the pundits criticize the FBI and CIA. We have heard how airport and airline security was lax, and that airplane doors were not designed correctly. What about God? He apparently could have stopped it all, wanted to stop it, and did not stop it.

Likewise, disease has destroyed many lives throughout history. What did God think in the past when he looked down on children in polio wards? Did he look at the pain and suffering of innocent children, and think it was good? Did it have a purpose? No, I think not.

Many people were sure that this suffering was pointless. They thought that nature was acting by itself and causing this suffering. They wanted to stop it. They looked for a natural cause, and they found it. Then they looked for a way to overcome that natural cause, and they developed a vaccine. When the vaccine and other preventions became readily available, the illness was controlled. If God had a purpose for polio, were these people right to try to prevent it? Yes. They were very right. Polio was bad.

Did God cease to have a purpose for polio the moment prevention became readily available? Does God still have a purpose in allowing under-privileged children to suffer who do not have access to medicine? Isn’t it odd that the probability that God will have a purpose in a child being crippled by polio has a direct correlation with whether the child has access to modern medicine and sanitation?

Suppose that firemen arrive at a burning house with a child inside that they could rescue. Is it possible that God wants this child to suffer? If God wants the child to suffer, are they doing the child a disservice by rescuing her? Of course not. The firemen would not think that for a minute. They would do everything they could to rescue the child. They would assume that the suffering was bad.

Tomorrow, almost everyone will be doing something to prevent others from suffering. Nurses will care for the sick. Policemen will protect us. Road workers will fill in potholes. Researchers will look for cures for diseases. Truckers and sailors will bring us lots of cool stuff–all the way from China. We will go about our lives hoping to minimize the suffering of others. We all know suffering is bad. And so, we will try to stop it.

Which brings us to God. Suffering will happen tomorrow. God, if he exists, will not stop it. People will get sick. Accidents will happen. And where will God be? For whatever reason he will not stop it. But people will know that it hurts. They will know it is bad, and they will try to stop it. Even if you tell us that suffering has a purpose, we will assume it is pointless, and will try to prevent it. But God will not stop it.

You think that he sometimes helps? Fine, but why is there all that suffering that he does not stop?

Some would argue that God is there comforting the suffering people. But how does that solve the problem? Would a fireman be excused for ignoring a fire if he later comforts the survivors? It is a good thing to comfort the suffering, but when it is completely within somebody’s power to stop suffering, and he does not do so, his comfort is small consolation to the victims. Has God been demoted from Supreme Ruler to Comforter-in-Chief?

Is God Sovereign by Bruce Gerencser

Links for further study

It appears that God was not in control of the circumstances when those planes hit the towers. So why think that he is in control when somebody takes your parking space, a tree falls on your house, or a loved one has cancer? Why try to answer the agonizing question about why God did this? Is God trying to teach you patience? Is he trying to win people to himself? Is he punishing you, or teaching you to rely on him? No, it would seem to me that it just happens. And it seems that our minds can be much more at peace when we realize this.

I don’t think God has a purpose when bad things happen. I do not see a strong wind or a mighty movement of the earth when I need it. Random events cause random suffering. I accept that. God is not in control.

Or maybe God doesn’t even exist.

Some people might say that I should not be looking for God to intervene in might or power, but I should be listening instead for a still, small voice. I discuss that next.

Is There Life after Death?

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

cemetery under the cloudy sky

You may have been told that you will live forever, but that seems quite unlikely to me. For our brains will one day be gone. All our lives those brains have been the seat of our thoughts, emotions, and memories. So, when the brain is gone, then the lights must go out. Surely then it is all over.

But some will tell me that something else lives on even after the brain has disintegrated. They often call this the soul. And ultimately, they say, the soul is the seat of the mind. And so, even if the brain is gone, the mind can continue as a function of a soul that survives death.

If the soul is really in charge, why do you even need a brain? If thinking is done by the soul, what is left for the brain to do? Some propose that the brain is simply an interface to the body. It gathers information from the senses and feeds it to the soul. There the soul processes the incoming data, saves memories, and makes decisions. The soul then somehow directs the brain to drive the muscles of the body. The soul is in charge, and the brain handles the interface with the body.

But science has shown that it is truly the brain that is in charge. We think with our brains, not with immaterial souls.

Have you got soul?

Let’s look at some evidence that the brain is in charge, and that there is no separate, non-material soul.

First, there is the evidence of amnesia. When elderly people suffer a stroke, or when trauma occurs to the brain, patients often lose the ability to remember things that happen after that tragic event. The person loses an important mental function, the ability to remember new things. But it was not the soul that had been damaged. The brain was damaged. Somehow damage to the brain causes that person to lose the ability to efficiently store new memories. If memories are actually a function of the soul, why would damage to the brain affect the functioning of the soul? Since damage to the brain affects the ability to store memories, then it must be the brain that stores the memories.

You might argue that what happened is that the brain stops giving the soul new data. Thus, the soul has nothing to remember. But that is clearly not what is happening. The essence of the person is still communicating with us. That person sees us, recognizes us, and communicates. The mind’s senses are still working. The mind is still able to observe, but the person forgets what was observed. Why? The brain is damaged. And this damage hinders memory storage. So, it must be the brain that is remembering. When the brain is affected, the mind is affected.

Second, when conditions prevent a brain from developing properly, the personality does not reach maturity. If the soul is distinct from the brain, why wouldn’t the soul go on to maturity?

Brain diagram png, vintage human

A third evidence that the brain is doing the thinking is the fact that, if the brain slows down and goes to sleep at night, the soul also sleeps. Suppose your soul is something different from the brain. Why does the soul go to sleep when the brain sleeps? Why can’t it just keep on being your soul, wide awake, even though the brain goes to sleep and has stopped giving the soul input from the world? It doesn’t work that way. When the brain is affected, the mind is affected.

The effect is even more pronounced under anesthesia. In such procedures, one loses virtually all contact with the world and does not sense even severe pain. After waking up, one is not even aware of the passage of time while he was unconscious. If the soul was distinct from the brain, one would think you could simply start counting as you go under and keep on counting into the thousands in your soul while contact with the world goes blank. It would be like losing the connection while on a Zoom call. The soul would still be awake. The person whose brain is sleeping would still be able to count or plan his next day, but the incoming senses of the world would temporarily be blank. This is not what happens.

Fourth, evidence shows that we inherit our basic personality through our genes. How is it that genes can affect our personality? Genes must surely be directing the brain’s physical development, which then influences the personality development. How could genes also change a separate, immaterial soul? That makes no sense. Personality must therefore be a function of the brain, not of a separate entity known as the soul. How else could genes have such a significant effect on the personality? 

Fifth, a patient with Alzheimer’s disease enters a period of altered mental capability due to brain disease. Is the soul of the Alzheimer’s victim also changed by his physical condition? That makes no sense. The disease affects the brain, not the soul. But if the soul is working normally, why are the thoughts so confused?

You may argue that the soul is still normal, but the connection of the brain to the soul is blurred. And yet we can still communicate with the essence of the Alzheimer’s victim, with the part you would call the soul. That spark of the inner person is still there. The communication still works. But we can see that the very essence of the inner person is changing. The part you would call the soul is deteriorating. Why? The brain is being altered. Since the mind is a function of the brain, it too becomes altered.

Are we to believe that death does for the Alzheimer’s victim what no medicine can do? Does death suddenly restore the mind to full functioning? How could that be? The disease gradually destroys the brain, and this deteriorate the mind. How then could the full destruction of the brain at death cause the mind to become restored?  

Sixth, if the soul is separate from the brain, exactly how does a soul interface with the brain? As far as we can tell, brain function consists of movements of electrons and chemicals. How could our soul communicate with this brain? Does the soul somehow start moving electrons around in our brains so that the brain knows to move a certain muscle or to command the mouth to say a certain word? How can the stuff of the soul push matter? Wouldn’t a soul push right through an electron, just like spirits supposedly pass through walls?

And if souls actually push molecules or electrons around, why can’t they push the molecules that are outside of the brain? If your soul can push molecules in your brain, why can’t it push molecules in my brain?

None of this can be observed in nature. Nowhere do we find evidence for souls deflecting molecules. So, how can a non-physical soul affect the movements of the body? It can’t. I conclude the mind is simply a function of the brain.

Seventh, as discussed earlier in my Dare to Question series, we have evolved from other animals. Do apes have souls? Do reptiles, fish and germs have souls? If not, exactly when was a soul inserted for the first time? Was the first being to have a soul raised by someone without a soul? It is easy to see how mind functions could develop incrementally through many generations as we evolved. It is difficult to see how an evolved creature would somehow suddenly get a separate, immaterial soul for the first time. And if apes don’t have souls, how do their brains partially duplicate some of the functions we require a soul to do?

For all these reasons, I conclude that it is the brain, not an immaterial soul, that stores memories and does the thinking. For more on mind-brain dependence see The Case Against Immortality  by Keith Augustine, Mind-Brain Dependence by Steven J. Conifer, and section III.6 of Sense and Goodness without God by Richard Carrier.


Yes, I know, you look inside, and you see your conscious mind is in there telling the body what to do. Your consciousness is in charge, or so it seems to you. And you equate that consciousness with a soul that is separate from the body. So how can you be perceiving this soul inside you to be directing the show, when actually it is brain molecules that are doing the heavy lifting? Good question.

Science has shown that the brain decides to do things before the person is aware that he made the decision. One experiment that verified this involved subjects who were told to decide to bend their wrist while watching a slowly spinning disk. They were told to tell the experimenters exactly where the disk was when they decided to bend their wrist. The experimenters used this information to determine when the subject was aware that he was making the decision. The subjects were also hooked up to sensors that could detect brain activity that occurred when the subjects decided to act.

It turns out that the brainwaves started before the subjects were aware that they were deciding. If you asked the subjects, they would tell you that they made the decision consciously at the moment that they were aware of it. But the instruments they were wired to indicate otherwise. The brain cells had begun to fire and started the process of commanding the hand to move before the person was consciously aware of the decision. [1]

Could it be that our brain cells are running the show, and that what we call the conscious mind comes along later and fills in the story after the fact? This kind of after-the-fact consciousness has been demonstrated in another experiment. Here is how it worked. A red dot was projected onto a screen. Then the red dot was turned off and, a split second later, a green dot was projected near the spot where the red dot had been. When people saw this, they reported that they saw the red dot start to move to the side, then change suddenly to a green dot as it moved along, and then continue to the new location as a green dot. Obviously, this is not what they saw. There was no moving dot that changed colors. The dot had never been in the middle. But the conscious mind told the story that the dot had traveled, and that the dot’s color had changed from red to green at the middle. The conscious mind was convinced that it had observed this happen. It was mistaken. [2]

And so, in that experiment, we find that minds rewrote history, just like the historians in the novel 1984 rewrote history to reflect what Big Brother wanted. A similar thing must have happened in the minds of the subjects. Their minds had known that objects don’t usually just disappear and immediately show up in a new location. They knew that, in such instances, the object probably moved from point A to point B. And if it changed colors, it had to change somewhere. The mind makes up the story that it observed the dot changing color when it was in the middle of its movement. The subject’s minds rewrote their memories and did it so well that they were confident the revised story was true.

Their conscious memory of seeing the dot change color as it moved was a sheer fabrication. The subjects “remember” it, but it never happened.

You have probably observed the mind rewriting memories. A significant event may happen to somebody, and immediately he tells us what happened. Ten minutes later you hear him tell the same story again, but it is a little different this time. An hour later, the story has been modified further. We hear the same story the next day and the next week. Each time we hear it, it is a little different. And often we can observe a trend in the rewrite. What the person thinks he should have said becomes a memory of what he did say.

True, sometimes the person modifying the story may be deliberately deceptive. But often the person is not trying to lie to us. He is an honest person, and yet his mind is changing the story.

Folks have probably observed a similar thing in you and me. Our minds gradually and unconsciously change the memories of the past so that they conform to what makes sense to us. Thus, we end up with memories of being conscious of something in the past, even though we never actually experienced it that way.

Notice that the memories of the person who saw a dot disappear and another dot appear are just like the memories of the person who truly saw a dot move. One memory reflects what was consciously observed. One is a fabrication. We cannot tell the difference.  Our minds are being misinformed about what we consciously experienced. We believe the lies that are being written to our memories.

Notice also that it is our memory of past events that is fundamental to our consciousness. Suppose that you had no ability to remember anything. You would be constantly aware of your current state at each moment, but you would be totally unaware of anything that had happened a microsecond earlier. It would be like listening to a music CD that was stuck on the same chord. Now that would not be real music. Music requires change, and so does consciousness. To really mean anything, our consciousness must consist of an awareness of the narrative that has brought us to the current state.

But as we have seen, this narrative is often freely being changed. We think we have conscious memories of how the story has unfolded, but somehow what we call our conscious memory is only the modified story that our minds create. What we call consciousness is just the story of how we got to where we are. The problem is, this story is somewhat illusory, since our minds are constantly revising that story, sometimes incorrectly.

So perhaps this explains how our minds can deceive ourselves into believing that there is a soul inside that is making the decision, even though experiments show that the decisions were made before we were aware of them. Perhaps our minds continuously create the story we call consciousness and write it in such a way that we think consciousness is making the decisions.

Where do your words come from?

Think about it. Where do your decisions come from? When you decide to speak, for instance, where do those words come from? You really don’t know, do you?

Think about all that is involved in creating spontaneous speech. Your brain contains information about thousands of thoughts that you could express. You have a vocabulary of thousands of words that you can use, and your mind knows the definition of each. And these words must be put together according to the syntax of your language. But you don’t remember sorting through your mental dictionary to look up the meanings of all relevant words to select the proper words to express the thought you chose. No, you just speak, and the right words present themselves to you. And you and your listeners both hear the sentence from your mouth at the same time. But where did the words come from?

If your soul is the speechwriter, why isn’t the soul aware of how the words came into your consciousness? Why isn’t your soul aware of looking up the meanings of all the words it could have used? Instead, behind the scenes, something must be working to look up available words and form those sentences for you. I contend this something is nothing more than the millions of neurons in your brain. They must be working behind the scenes to write your speech for you. You and I think that our conscious mind is speaking, but the conscious mind isn’t even aware of how the speech is being written.

Even when we slowly deliberate, weighing every word carefully before speaking, we cannot tell where those word options originated. The words just present themselves to us. Something looked through our mental dictionary and pulled those words up for us.

Many Christians seem to recognize that thoughts come to us fully formed. I have heard some ascribe different authors to the thoughts that stream through their minds. It is interesting to hear them describe the experience. They will tell me that Satan was saying something in their minds, and then they responded, and then God said something, and then the old nature argued, and then Jesus said something, and so on. It must be interesting being them! There are enough of people inside to have great conversation. But perhaps they are mistaken. Perhaps various thoughts originate, not from various competing spirit beings inside the mind, but from various competing coalitions of neurons in the brain.

Science indicates that there are millions of neurons working in our brains, and that this activity produces thoughts. It is a cacophony of voices, with many different ideas competing for dominance. But somehow the winning thoughts come to the top and present themselves as a string of conscious ideas. The real work, however, is done among all these competing neurons.

Often our language betrays the fact that things are going on outside of our direct conscious control. We say things like “I didn’t mean to do that,” “The words wouldn’t come,” “I couldn’t help myself,” or “I don’t know why I did that.” In such statements there is a subtle recognition that our consciousness is not really in charge.

The consciousness is along for the ride, observing the finished work that the neurons have put together. And the consciousness rewrites its memories in such a way that it seems to us that our consciousness is making the decisions.

For more on how our brains create consciousness see Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett and my essay, How Can Molecules Think?

I conclude that thinking is done by the brain, and these thoughts produce our consciousness. Consciousness does not come from an immaterial soul.

Life after death

We know that brain activity stops when we die. If our memories are in the brain, how could they remain after death? And how can the inherited personality survive if the very brain that produced it is destroyed? It seems that it too must be gone. If my memories and personality are gone, how can I still be said to exist?

Some will agree that the brain is doing the thinking here on earth, but there is a soul in there also. And the soul just so happens to want the same thing the brain wants and store the same memories the brain stores. So, though the brain is gone at death, the soul that works in parallel remains. How convenient. Seems implausible to me. So, I won’t waste time hoping that it is so.

Ah, but someone might ask if God couldn’t just make a copy of all that we experienced in our brain. When we die, God restores everything from the backup, just like we would do on a computer. Our mind would literally be backed up in the cloud.

If there is a backup of my mental database that will be used to drive a new body someday, how do we know it won’t happen to two bodies, or even a thousand? Will there be thousands of copies of me out there running off the same backup database of me? It is difficult to see how we can refer to any of those backups as “me”. They are copies, not me. The same thing can be said about the first copy made from a backup database of my memories. It’s not really me. Would it be fair to punish or reward a copy of me for what I have done here on earth?

Is it possible a God is making a backup copy of me that can live forever? Perhaps, but I can make hundreds of similar wild guesses as to what might happen someday. For instance, is there a possibility that aliens will land on Jupiter, transform it into a paradise for humans, and then offer free shuttle service back and forth to earth? Perhaps. But I don’t spend long hoping for that to happen. Nor do I spend long hoping that some backup copy of me lives forever.

So it appears that neither a soul nor a copy of the brain’s database survives death.

But what about bodily resurrection? Perhaps the brain lies dormant until God puts it back together and resurrects the body. But how could that happen? What about the bodies of people that died a thousand years ago? Their bodies have disintegrated, and the constituent atoms are spread throughout the world. Some of those particles could be in your brain now. Some atoms may have been part of many people’s brains throughout history. To which brain will they go in the resurrection?

If, on the other hand, I am reconstructed from a new set of molecules, is not such a reconstructed me just one of many possible copies of me that could be made? We are left with a copy, or even multiple copies, not a continued existence of my mind. A copy of me is not the same thing as me.

So, it appears that our minds will not survive death. Your mind is a function of your brain, and your brain will someday die. If you and I are going to find the good life, we will need to make the most of what we have here. Let us make this life count.

Where does this leave God if he exists? If he is not preparing a place for us, what is he doing for us in this life? Let’s explore that next.

Yes, what (on earth) is God doing?

Addendum: Q&A


In an online debate of this page, Mountainmanmike suggested that near-death experiences are evidence for souls. He contended that souls can somehow travel from the body and sense events happening remote from the body.

Near-death experiences are reported by less than 20% of people that were near death. If souls really do these things near death, why do not most people observe this?

There are many things that can cause such experiences. Oxygen deprivation, for instance, will restrict side vision, and make it appear like one is in a dark tunnel. Hence, the reports of traveling through a tunnel.

Did the reported experiences truly happen while physical consciousness was gone? We have no proof of that. There can be a rush of thoughts as one fades in and out of consciousness. So, the reported vague consciousness during the experience can simply be memories as one went in and out of consciousness.

What about the fact that people sometimes have knowledge of things that were happening in the room? Such knowledge can come while partially conscious, from later hearing about the events from others, or by simply making educated guesses about what happened.


Mountainmanmike also argued that twins can sense the death of a twin far away.

Although there are many such claims, none can be repeated in controlled studies. Yes, a twin may die, and the other twin may report having a strange feeling at that moment, but how does that prove that the soul of the dead twin travelled to be with the other twin? We are going strictly off the memory of the events. And memories change with time. We selectively remember things that match what we want. We ignore all those times when we felt uneasy, and there was no tragedy elsewhere, or when tragedy happened, and nobody reports this experience.

Such claims of remote sensing were never verified in controlled studies, where we would need to show that the knowledge supposedly transmitted was such that it was unlikely to have happened by chance.

And even if twins are shown to consistently know when a distant twin dies, how would that prove that a soul left a body? How would you know that is not just some yet unknown sense such as a bat’s radar that can sense things from a distance?


Anecdotal evidence is extremely unreliable. For years people were pitching snake oil and all kinds of claims based on anecdotal evidence. But people see what they want to see. So, if they invest in snake oil, for instance, they will often think they see fantastic things happen with snake oil. And they will tell stories of the success of snake oil. That is why scientists got away from trusting such anecdotal evidence and look instead for the results of controlled studies.

If we accept claims of remote sensing without having a controlled study to verify it, we are relying only on anecdotal evidence. Should we also go back to the days where all sorts of flimflam cures were promoted on nothing more than anecdotes? Should we abandon modern medicine based on controlled studies, and instead trust anecdotes? I prefer scientific evidence and controlled studies.

Does paranormal perception occur in near-death experiences? by Keith Augustine
How Not to do Survival Research by Keith Augustine
Beyond the BICS Essay Contest: Envisioning a More Rigorous Preregistered Survival Study by Etienne LeBel, Keith Augustine & Adam Rock

Links on Near-Death Experience Studies


Mountainmanmike continued with a long list of pseudoscience mixed with descriptions of science. Since all stories can be called anecdotes, is all evidence anecdotal?

He is confusing telling an account of the experimental procedure and uncontrolled anecdotal evidence. When scientists speak of anecdotal evidence, they are speaking of a claim with no scientific methodology to prevent bias from influencing the result. Real scientists use studies that are designed to discover the truth, regardless of any pre-existing bias that they may have. And when they do such experiments, they describe what they did. Such descriptions of experiments are quite different from anecdotal evidence.

Scientific observation is based on getting information that is not the result of the scientist’s bias. For instance, when testing new medicines, the medicine is tested in a controlled double-blind trial. Such studies, when properly done, minimize the effects of bias on the results. So, the studies give valuable information.

When Mountainmanmike reports that a twin had an odd feeling when a distant twin died, what controls were used to keep bias out of the claim?

There is a difference between a properly done statistical study and anecdotal evidence that has no scientific controls. The table listed at Learn How Anecdotal Evidence Can Trick You is a good description of the difference.


On this thread, Yaaten wrote, “The soul sleeps at night because the brain is asleep?…Don’t you dream when you’re asleep?” 

Yes, of course, I dream while asleep. We can go through stages of consciousness, especially when fading in and out of sleep. But clearly the conscious mind is not in the same state during sleep as it is while awake.

How can you explain that? If you are counting sheep when going to sleep, you will always stop counting when you go to sleep. If your soul or mind is the conscious part of you, and is distinct from the brain, why doesn’t it continue to be the conscious part in a fully alert state while your brain sleeps? Why can’t your independent soul just keep on counting, fully conscious, while the brain dozes?

If the soul is in charge, and the brain is just my connection to the world, why would the soul start dreaming when the connection gets cut off? But if instead, the brain is the seat of the mind, and it goes through various stages of sleep, it is certainly understandable that the brain could then act differently and cause the mind to dream.


1. Dennett, Daniel C., Consciousness Explained (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1991) pp. 162-163

2. Dennett, Daniel C., Consciousness Explained (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1991) p 114

Copyright Merle Hertzler 2002, 2005, 2006, 2022. All rights reserved.

Pop-Quiz for Christians, Number 7

Here’s the link to this article by David Madison.


Dealing with some of the curiosities in Matthew’s gospel

I have often pointed
out that the gospels are a minefield. Randel Helms has said it even better: “The Bible is a self-destructing artifact.” We are far removed from the thought world of those who wrote the New Testament, so it’s hardly a surprise that we find some very strange things in the gospels. One of my purposes in these Pop Quizzes for Christians is to encourage them to look beneath the rituals, ceremonies, and sermons—all of which are designed to present a magnificent case for Christianity. But is that what we actually find in the gospels? If the brain is fully in gear, if folks were in the habit of questioning everything, they could see that far too much just doesn’t make sense. When we open the New Testament, the gospel of Matthew is the first thing we see—although Mark was actually the first to be written. There is a lot in Matthew that should make Christians wonder how/why it should be taken seriously.

This quiz is designed to draw attention to some major flaws that should not exist in a divinely inspired document. Here are the links to previous quizzes:  One   Two   Three   Four   Five   Six

Question One:

Matthew’s gospel opens with a 16-verse genealogy of Jesus, tracing his lineage back to King David; this was an essential credential to establish Jesus as the messiah. But then Matthew declares that Jesus was conceived by the holy spirit: Joseph wasn’t the father. Discuss why Matthew felt he could present—and get way with—such a contradiction.

Question Two: 

This is verse 20 of Matthew 1: “…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” Discuss the problems any historian faces when the argument is made that this should be taken seriously. 

Question Three:

Read Isaiah 7 and Hosea 11. Do you find anything in these two chapters that reference Jesus of Nazareth? Yet Matthew used Isaiah 7:14 and Hosea 11:1 to boost his argument that Jesus had special divine status. Discuss Matthew’s theology in this deceptive use of scripture.

Question Four:

Matthew 6:19-20:  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Explain how Christians today square this with their extravagant consumer lifestyles?   

Question Five:

We are stumped by conflicting Jesus-script that Matthew presents. Consider:

Matthew 18:21-22: “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”

But when Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, this level of forgiveness is absent:

Matthew 10:14-15: If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

Similar severity is found in the last judgement scene in Matthew 25: Those who fail to show sufficient compassion will end up in eternal fire (vv. 41 and 45).

How can this incoherence in Matthew’s Jesus-script be explained? 

Question Six:

Here is one of the strangest texts in the New Testament:

At themoment Jesus died,Matthew reports (27:52-53): “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” This remarkable happening is not mentioned in the other gospels or in the epistles—nor does it appear in any other records of the time. Explain why historians have trouble believing this account, which looks very much like a tale suitable for Halloween. 

Answers and Comments

Question One:

Descended from David, or conceived by a holy spirit, with no human father? For modern readers—who give it much thought—this seems to be a blend of theologies that, in fact, cannot be blended. But those for whom Matthew wrote were probably satisfied that the man who raised Jesus was descended from David; that justified the genealogy. Did it even occur to them that there is a major blunder here? 

This was an audience that accepted the superstitions and miracle folklore of the ancient world. Other cults believed that their heroes and deities had been conceived by gods and born to human women, hence Matthew probably felt, “Why not?” when he added this to his story of Jesus. Contemporary readers are right to assume that Matthew wasn’t bound by rigorous logic, and he wrote long before there was a scientific understanding of reproduction. Luke went along with Matthew’s idea, in fact he elaborated substantially on the fantasy. Mark, John, and the apostle Paul fail to mention the miraculous origin of Jesus; it’s a minority opinion in the New Testament.

Question Two:

In Matthew 1:20 we read that it was in a dream that Joseph got word about Mary being pregnant by a holy spirit. Most New Testament scholars date Matthew’s gospel to the late first century, at least fifty years after the death of Jesus—and eighty years after his birth. So historians can’t take this story seriously unless they know where/how Matthew got his information. Writing accurate, authentic history requires access to contemporaneous documentation, items that were created very near the time of an event. So how could Matthew have found out about Joseph’s dream? Maybe Joseph kept a diary? But was he literate? If he did keep a diary, where was it archived so that Matthew had access to it? And even if such a diary existed, and he wrote about a dream, how could we possibly verify that an angel had spoken to him? 

I have lots of weird dreams, and when I wake up I’m relieved to be back to reality! 

John Loftus has described the dilemma for historians: “How might anonymous gospel writers, 90-plus years later, objectively know Jesus was born of a virgin? Who presumably told them? The Holy Spirit? Why is it God always speaks to individuals in private, subjective, unevidenced whispers? Those claims are a penny a dozen.” (Debunking Christianity Blog, 25 December 2016)

Matthew 1 is fantasy literature, not history. 

Question Three:

Isaiah 7:14: “…the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” Hosea 11:1: “…When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” The context of these verses has nothing whatever to do with the prediction of a coming messiah or savior. But Matthew was hunting for Old Testament verses that for him were proof that Jesus had been predicted centuries in advance. Today we simply identify this as abuse/misuse of scripture—theology off on a wrong track completely. In fact, Matthew got really carried away. Read Luke’s birth story: after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary headed back to Nazareth with Jesus. For Luke, that was where they lived, and there is no mention of a flight to Egypt; nor is it found in the other gospels.  But Matthew was so eager to apply Hosea 11:1 to Jesus: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Clearly, however, the Hosea text is about the people of Israel. Matthew was driven by his theology to make things up

Imagine a theologian, five or six centuries from now, wanting to show that Harry Potter was a divine hero, by citing Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:6, Matthew 27:7—all of which include the word potter. We’d say, “How goofy is that,” but this is exactly the technique Matthew used in applying Isaiah 7:14 and Hosea 11:1 to Jesus. But his case is even weaker: the word Jesus does not appear in these verses in Isaiah or Hosea.

Question Four:

“Do not store up treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19) appears to have little impact on the behavior of church-going Christians I know. As much as anyone else they acquire nice houses with giant TVs and a wide array of indispensable consumer goods—and they train their kids to behave the same way. “More, more, more,” seems to be their basic creed—”as much as we can afford.” Of course, the most important storing of treasure on earth is the pension plan, and retirement savings accounts. A few verses later, in Matthew 6:25, we read: “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” Is that really how any of us, Christians included, manage life today? 

These verses are in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, which includes other commands that most believers I know simply ignore, e.g., give to anyone who begs, don’t refuse anyone who asks to borrow from you, if you are sued, hand over more than you’re sued for. And the worst advice imaginable: “Do not resist an evildoer” (verse 5:39). In fact, it would be quite a challenge for most of the devout to read the Sermon on the Mount carefully and decide what they can take seriously. It would seem that Matthew wrote his Jesus-script based on the assumption that the Kingdom of God would arrive soon, thus all earthy concerns would vanish: hence the importance of storing up treasures in heaven—whatever that means. So much advice in this famous sermon strikes us as naïve and unrealistic.    

Question Five:

From time to time when I’m watching Father Brown on TV, the good priest assures folks that god is loving and forgiving—as long as the sinner repents and asks for forgiveness. This is the kindly Man Upstairs that the devout want most to believe in. Maybe Jesus was right: he forgives seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22). But is that really the message that Matthew intended? There is too much incoherence in Matthew’s Jesus-script. Jesus assured his disciples that any village or household that refused to listen to their preaching would be destroyed—they would suffer the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah. One of the most beloved texts in the gospels is Jesus speaking of those who do a variety of good deeds, e.g. feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison. “…just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). This is indeed a beautiful text, but then this sentiment is wiped out by the assurance that those who don’t show sufficient compassion will be dispatched to suffer in eternal fire. Believers who want Father Brown’s version of god can’t be happy with this. It sounds very much like extreme, brutal theology typical of cults that aren’t bothered by incoherence

Question Six:

Matthew 27:52-53 has been ridiculed a lot: zombies—recently brought back to life at the moment Jesus died—then leaving their tombs on Eastern morning to tour Jerusalem. Why didn’t Jesus bother to hang out with them for a while? Just on the face of it, historians can’t be bothered to take this seriously. Other than these two verses—written decades later—there is no other mention anywhereof this macabre episode. Yes, it qualifies as a tall tale, one, in fact, that undermines belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Maybe that’s a tall tale as well, as

Robert Conner illustrates in his book, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story. With these two verses, Matthew makes a joke of any claim that he was a divinely inspired author—if so, he went rogue far too much of the time.

Matthew tells us nothing of his sources: did he really know anything about Jesus?  He copied most of Mark’s gospel without admitting he’d done so—and changed Mark’s wording as he saw fit. Isn’t plagiarism a sin? It sure isn’t what we’d expect if an author’s pen is guided by divine inspiration.   

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.

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