Why the Bible Convinces Some but Drives Away Others

A friend wrote me this past weekend to ask a really good question:

Why [do] you think that some atheists (Lee Strobel comes to mind) become Christians because they studied the Bible, while devout Christians such as yourself end up becoming atheists for the same reason?

Whenever I talk about this, I feel obligated to point out how commonly Christian evangelists misuse the word “atheist” to include people who were raised in Christian homes but who didn’t fully commit to their family’s faith until some crisis later in life changed the way they felt about it.

To hear celebrities like Kirk Cameron talk, you would think an atheist is defined as anyone who lives as if there were no God regardless of their actual beliefs on the subject. That would certainly explain why their description of an atheist’s inner thought life always sounds so…off.

When they talk about us, we always sound like the angry professor in God’s Not Dead who calls himself an atheist but who clearly harbors a great deal of hostility toward the God he says he doesn’t believe in. They can’t even imagine what it would be like to view the world from a truly godless point of view.

Related: “What Christians Mean When They Use the Word Atheist

But I suspect this isn’t the case for Strobel. He seems to me like he genuinely disbelieved the Christian message all the way up into his twenties, at least until the day his wife converted to Christianity. Then things got much harder for him.

It’s Personal Now

To cut to the chase, I think this boils down to the centrality of emotion in human nature. We like to think of ourselves as eminently rational beings, especially those of us who fly the “skeptic” flag. But the harsh reality is that, more often than not, we chart our course because of how we feel about a matter rather than what we think about it. The former guides the latter more than we will ever admit.

Rider and ElephantThe best analogy I’ve heard is Jonathan Haidt‘s image of the elephant and the rider. In Haidt’s metaphor, our reasoning capabilities are like a rider atop a much more powerful, primal beast we call our emotions. Incidentally, I would argue these aren’t just our own sentiments, but also those of everybody around us who matter to us. But the point is that while our rational processes can often guide our complex emotional interiors, whenever the two are at odds with each other, the elephant always wins.

Our feelings exert significant control over what we allow ourselves to think.

Strobel often tells how his wife’s conversion strained their marriage, leading him to worry they would eventually divorce. He says the change in his wife’s beliefs produced an accompanying improvement in her overall attitude and demeanor, and this made him uneasy. So he devoted himself to a personally guided study of the reliability of the gospels (if he had started with the Old Testament, he’d have quit after only a few weeks, demoralized).

Except…look at what he did. He loves to say he consulted not one or two but thirteen different scholars in order to determine whether or not the gospels are reliable. Here is a list of those thirteen men (why only men?). See if anything in particular jumps out at you.

1. William Lane Craig – Talbot School of Theology (Christian philosophy and theology professor).
2. J. P. Moreland – Talbot School of Theology (Christian philosophy and theology professor).
3. Ben Witherington III – Asbury Theological Seminary (New Testament professor).
4. Craig Blomberg – Denver Seminary (New Testament professor).
5. Gary Habermas – Liberty University (Christian philosophy and theology professor).
6. D.A. Carson – Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (New Testament professor).
7. Bruce Metzger – Princeton Theological Seminary (New Testament professor).
8. Edwin Yamauchi – Miami University (History professor).
9. John McRay – Wheaton College (New Testament Archaeology professor).
10. Gregory Boyd – pastor of Woodland Hills Church and professor of theology at Bethel University.
11. Alexander Metherell – Radiologist, private practice in California.
12. Gary Collins – Clinical psychologist and former professor of Christian counseling (Bethel, Trinity).
13. Louis Lapides – Talbot School of Theology (Old Testament professor).

Not only are these men all lifelong members of the Christian church, they are almost all theology professors employed by Christian seminaries and universities. Most of them, if not all, have even served as pastors of evangelical churches. Does this look like a list of experts you’d want to consult in order to get an unbiased survey of the reliability of the Bible?

If a Mormon challenged me to investigate the Church of the Latter Day Saints by giving me a list of 13 professors at Brigham Young University to interview, I’d be done with the conversation before it even started. That would be kind of like setting out to evaluate the legitimacy of the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election by watching a solid week of nothing but FOX News. I can save you some time and tell you right now what your conclusions will be before you’ve even started.

Strobel knew what conclusion he needed to arrive at, and he chose only those writers who would try to persuade him in the direction he knew he needed to go. It led him exactly where he chose to go, and his cognitive dissonance was eventually quieted along the way. This is one of the main functions of apologetics: soothing the inquisitive mind so that it will relax and just believe what it has been told. Because for some people the cost of NOT believing can be incredibly high.

In an interview with Hemant Mehta over at The Friendly Atheist, Strobel blamed his own inner motivations for his previous unbelief.

I had a vested interest in the non-existence of God because I was living a rather immoral lifestyle and did not want to be held accountable for my behavior.

I can’t speak to the inner workings of Strobel’s previous addictions, but I would argue that “vested interests” can be as responsible for accepting the claims of the Christian faith as they can be for rejecting them. Seeing first hand all the negative consequences that potentially follow those who reject this tradition, I would argue it becomes far easier for people to stay in than to come out.

Many will never allow themselves the intellectual freedom to ask the harder questions of their faith. And even when they do, they will do the same thing Strobel did and only seek help from people whose intellectual commitments are so clearly safe that you know where things will end up before you even begin. Man, have I been there and done that. Still have all the books, too. I’m surprised my seminary library hasn’t put up a wanted poster of me yet from all the stuff I still haven’t returned.

The Elephant in the Room

But Strobel isn’t the only person who tells this kind of story. My friend is right, some people do convert to Christianity by reading the Bible, and it’s curious that atheists like me who DE-convert often give exactly the same reason for leaving: we read the Bible, just like we were told to do. So what gives? How can doing the same activity produce such opposite results?

Related: “Our Biggest Mistake: We Did As We Were Told

Let’s use the critical reception Strobel’s movie earned as an illustration for how this works: Despite Strobel spending months on the road promoting both the movie and the book on which it was based, and despite an aggressive Easter season promotion by online Christian publications and by the film’s producers at Pure Flix Entertainment, the movie still came in 10th place at the box office, far behind films such as Smurfs: The Lost Village and Going In Style (I had to look that one up).

A film critic writing for Movie Nation gave The Case for Christ only 1.5 stars out of 5 and called it “unemotional, uninspiring and unconvincing.” Meanwhile over at Christianity Today they said “it stands among the best films yet produced by the Christian film industry.” Other Christian publications similarly gushed about the quality of the film’s message, the caliber of the acting, and so on.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think two different movies bearing the same name were released on the same weekend. How could the same movie inspire such opposite reactions? The obvious answer is that a movie like this could only impress you if you were already predisposed to accept everything it had to say before the opening credits even started.

Much like apologetics in general, a movie like this isn’t made in order to convince nonbelievers that the Bible is a legit record of things that actually happened. It’s not made for the lost, it’s made for the already saved. They’re the ones who dutifully purchase tickets to support this industry. It’s a tribal identity thing, and their perception of the believability of the film hinges entirely on their predisposition to believe everything else that their faith tradition teaches.

It reminds me of the verse in the Bible that says:

For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.

At one point in my own past, I took great solace in this passage as it assured me it wasn’t my fault when people weren’t as captivated by my beliefs as I was. They just weren’t the right kind of people, you see. They didn’t have “ears to hear” what God was up to in the world.

But now I’m one of those people for whom this message has started to smell bad, like a cup of milk you forgot to pour out before you left to go on a long trip. The words are the same, but now it all just kind of stinks. It strikes me in a completely opposite way, now. Nowadays the main thing that jumps out at me from that passage is the next verse, which says:

Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit.

Somebody ought to tell that to Pure Flix Entertainment. I’m not sure their bibles still have that verse in it.

Rose-Colored Glasses

At the beginning of a new romantic relationship, you tend to view the object of your affections through rose-colored glasses. You see the flaws, sure, but they don’t matter much to you because you want the relationship too much to be bothered by them. You bury those things as far down as you can so as not to ruin a good thing.

But after years of being with the same person, especially if they’ve failed to live up to the promises they made toward you at the very beginning, you begin to see those flaws again in a new light. They are no longer overlookable, and now you find yourself compiling actual lists of them. Before long you may even start looking for a way out.

This, to me, parallels what happens when an atheist unfamiliar with the psychological pull of religious belief finds himself drawn in by the grandiose claims it makes. It’s especially irresistible if your spouse is already there, waiting for you to join him or her in that blissful existence.

But sometimes the flaws just become too much. You can’t overlook them anymore, and the rose-colored glasses have probably broken or got lost somewhere along the way. All it takes is a brief period of looking directly at what’s there for you to realize you’ve been living inside a stage performance that only looks real if you squint really hard.

[Which leads me to the thing I want to talk about in my next post: The Truman Show. Come back soon and I’ll share my thoughts on that, and how they tie together with today’s post.]

I think Strobel came to the faith wearing rose-colored glasses. He had strong personal motivation to confirm the religion that had captivated his most intimate life partner, and I know exactly what that pull feels like. It’s enough to motivate a guy to lie to himself about how well he’s thought through things, and what he can live with.

But the glasses don’t always work forever, and before you know it the same religious narratives  that once smelled alive start reeking of something else entirely.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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