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.

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7 Comments »

  1. It is sad that these are the views taught in any if not most seminaries today. I was taught all the intellectual objections to Christianity as past of my program to become ordained. Unfortunately, I did not know how to respond nor hold on with the overwhelming amount of information against faith. I ended up walking away from Christianity for 14 long hard living miserable years before returning to my faith. I do not wish it on anyone. But as I write this it strikes e that maybe God can use even that experience I went through to help someone else.

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  2. I used to think my faith rested on intellect, but I’m realizing day after day that it really rests on hope. I find atheism untenable not just because of the ultimate absurdity it suggests, but because if that ultimate absurdity is true, then nihilism will destroy my soul. I can’t handle that

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  3. Wow! This was a real eye-opener for me. Thank you for an informative post. The Thomas Cranmer quote hits the nail on the head. “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” Your post explains what that means. Blessings, Haden!

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  4. Haden, I enjoyed the article and your reminder about the “intellectual scapegoats” that are sometimes used as a protective layer over the real reason for their unbelief. Although sometimes these objections may really be a large part of their unbelief, I do think there is usually a moral or emotional reason to some extent at the foundation of their objections. In my experience, once the layers of evidence and argumentation for unbelief are peeled away, there is typically some form of moral or emotional objection. Although, even when this is peeled back and the gospel is all they have left to contend with, I have sensed that a spiritual “wall” remians present. In other words, they seem to simply love darkness rather than the light, do not want moral accountability, or want to blame God for certain issues in life. Though not always, this has often been the case in my conversations with skeptics.

    You may enjoy a recent article I wrote about skeptics facing the truths of Scripture called “Confronted by the Historical Jesus” in this link: jakebyrd.wordpress.com/2019/03/19/confronted-by-the-historical-jesus/
    I also wrote articles entilited “The End of Atheism” and “The Faith Delusion” that you may be interested in. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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  5. Hello I like you blog and you write well.

    To be fair people can pull away from the faith for multiple reasons. Its not like if he mentions one reason then he could not have had others. In one of his books I think he mentions that he suffered a crisis of faith in part because he discovered the mustard seed was not the smallest of seeds. That seems fully bizarre to me but when someone is taught at the moody bible institute it may make sense.

    But before we let Ehrman off the hook he wrote a whole book based on this same error of reasoning. He wrote a book saying God contradicts himself about why there is evil when really God just offers many different reasons. Just because a person believes or acts based on several different reasons that does not mean the person contradicts himself.

    I have a question about this:
    “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?'”

    I think the question is if the person knew or had good reason to know it was true. From what I understand of many atheists they say it is certainly possible Christianity is True (whatever we might mean by that) but they say they do not think there is sufficient evidence to believe it. See Bertrand Russel e.g., – “Not enought evidence God not enough evidence.”

    But I do think a good question to ask is what would be enough evidence. And some atheists will admit no amount of evidence would ever be enough similar to how Hume argued against Miracles. (BTW Ehrman said he agrees with Hume in a Sam Harris interview)

    But if they go that route then you can at least say ok but you are admitting no amount of evidence would ever convince you. But if they agree that some evidence would convince them, then ask what would such evidence be? Usually the evidence is miracles. And at that point I think you can at least ask well of all the religions what religion gives the best evidence in terms of Miracles. Islam offers very little, and many other religions offer none. Whether we are talking about Miracles recorded in the Gospels (It is why John speaks directly to them thousands of years before they were born!) or even modern day miracle claims Christianity has the best evidence.

    So in the process you will sort of resolve the whole issue of “what God should I believe in?” You can simply say the one that has the best evidence.

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