Bart Ehrman and the Scapegoat of Intellectual Objections
Last week I interviewed Austin Gentry for the Help Me Believe Podcast about his new book “10 Things Every Christian Should Know for College.” We discussed many relevant and important topics, but one stood out to me.
Austin tells the story of how he went to UNC Chapel Hill where famous New Testament critic, Bart Ehrman, teaches as a professor. Ehrman is a former evangelical Christian who has become a leading skeptic in the realm of textual criticism. He will make claims about the number of variations in the New Testament manuscripts, or say that there are contradictions in the Gospel writer’s accounts, and that we should therefore reject the New Testament as reliable, and therefore reject Christianity.
Ehrman attempts to give people intellectual reasons to reject Christianity. But is that why he first rejected Christianity? No. Ehrman initially left his Christian faith in favor of atheism (or agnosticism) because he didn’t like the fact that God and suffering existed at the same time. Don’t take my word for it, listen for yourself. Bart Ehrman didn’t leave Christianity for any of the reasons he wants you to leave. He didn’t leave because Christianity is unintelligent. He left because he had a problem with God’s morality. His reasons were based on emotion and morality, not intellection.
What an odd thing. The fact that he spends most of his time trying to talk people out of their faith using intellectual objections, instead of the emotional objection that caused him to leave Christianity, is telling. If his initial reason for leaving the faith were valid, he would probably use it as an argument more than he uses these claims of textual criticism. Nonetheless, the real reason he left Christianity is left as a side-note, an after thought.
It isn’t uncommon, nor is it confined to skeptics or those who have left the faith, to use intellectual objections as scapegoats. Thomas Cranmer said it best, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.”
This is a bias that we all tend toward and must be aware of. We cannot let our desires cloud our judgment and keep us from seeing counter evidence and reason.
When engaging with skeptics who give intellectual objections to Christianity, ask them if they were ever once a Christian. Odds are they were raised in a Christian home. Then ask why they left. Perhaps they really did reject Christianity for intellectual reasons, but maybe they left for emotional reasons like Bart Ehrman. This will clear up your conversation and give you the opportunity to address the heart of the matter with the gospel of Jesus.
Another related tactic I would recommend comes from Frank Turek. When Frank visits colleges and churches and engages with skeptics, he always asks “If Christianity were true, would you believe?” Some people are honest enough to say no. And that’s fine. But there’s no conversation to be had with someone who isn’t open to changing their mind. You cannot convince someone that is not willing to be convinced. No amount of evidence will ever change their mind.
The scapegoat of intellectual objections is important to keep in mind as you engage with your skeptical friends. Not recognizing this common tactic will result in useless conversations about all sorts of intellectual objections when in reality the problem was emotional, or moral the whole time.