How Changing My Views Affected My Relationships

How Changing My Views Affected My Relationships January 14, 2019

Editor’s Note:  This bestselling author, New Testament scholar and Clergy Project member has written quite a lot about Christianity from an academic perspective.  Now he tells us something about how his rejection of religious belief has affected his personal life. This is reposted from his blog, with permission.  /Linda LaScola, Editor

=========================

By Bart Ehrman

I’ve decided to answer a personal question in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag, about how my relationships with others changed as I went from being a very conservative evangelical Christian to becoming an agnostic/atheist.

QUESTION  Would you be willing to elaborate on how your changing views affected your relationships with friends and family and how people reacted to your changing perspective? Thanks so much!

RESPONSE   As it turns out, in my case, the biggest “problem” for my relationships with family and friends was not so much when I became an agnostic, over twenty years ago now, but when I left the evangelical beliefs I had held as a young adult to become a “liberal” Christian with critical views of the Bible, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christian theology.

For some years, from the time I had become a “born-again” Christian when I was fifteen up through the years I was at Moody Bible Institute and then Wheaton College, and even my first year in a Masters of Divinity program, I had been a gung-ho and rather outspoken advocate of the absolute truth and infallibility of the Bible, and of the traditional doctrines of the Christian faith – the literal Virgin birth of Jesus, the absolute historicity of all the events narrated in the Bible (both Old Testament and New Testament), the actual, physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and so on.

I believed that all these things could be actually proved, and I spent tons of time talking to my friends and families about them – either directly about them or indirectly, when talking about other things —  but these views were assumed.   They were very much a part of who I was, and it was what people expected of me in their own understandings of who I was.

Because of my studies at the graduate level, starting with my MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary, I started to change my views.  I did so very reluctantly; I fought hard against the new insights I was being handed in my biblical studies classes.  Some of my professors (rightly) thought I was a real pain in the backside, with my conservative views that I clung to rather tenaciously.  But over time, the more and more I learned, the less and less I could remain convinced that my views were actually right.

I would say the definitive turn probably started in my junior (second) year in my master’s program, as I came to realize that – despite what I wanted to think – the Bible really did have problems.  I started seeing discrepancies that had simply escaped my attention for all the years before, places where one passage contradicted another, where there were almost certainly historical mistakes, or geographical errors, and so on.  At first I concluded that such problems affected only the small details of the text.  But over the course of a year or two, I started seeing that they affected very big things indeed.

Anyone can see these kinds of problem for themselves and doesn’t need to take anyone else’s word for it.   This past week (some 37 years later for me personally) I had my undergraduate students do a detailed comparison of the three accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, noting all the similarities and differences and seeing if there was a way to explain the differences.  The differences are all over the map: who goes to Jesus’ tomb?  How many women were there and what were their names?  Was the stone rolled away before they got there or after they arrived?  What did they see there?  What were they told there?  Did they do what they were told or not?  Which of the disciples saw Jesus, if any?  And when?  And where?  And on and on.

These might seem, on the surface, just to be detailed issues that don’t matter.  But there are some real, and serious, contradictions.  I would challenge anyone to explain to me how Luke can be right that the disciples saw Jesus in Jerusalem on the day of his resurrection and were told not to leave Jerusalem and never did leave Jerusalem until long after Jesus ascended to heaven forty days later, if Matthew is right that the disciples were told to leave Jerusalem to meet Jesus (some hundred miles north) in Galilee and they did leave Jerusalem right away and did see Jesus only in Galilee.  Did they stay in town the whole time or not?  I don’t see how it can be both.

When I started (back 37 years ago now) seeing these kinds of problems, I wanted to talk about them, just as earlier I had wanted to talk about how the Bible had no mistakes of any kind.  But the people I had to talk *to* were my friends and family, almost of whom agree with my *older* views (in many instances because I had convinced them!).  But now I was contradicting those views.  Rather forcefully and (I’m sorry to say) with a bit of triumphant pride (NOW, I had found the truth!)

This created a rift in a number of my relationships.  Especially with church people that I used to associate with and with some family members, who couldn’t understand why I was “leaving the faith.”   I eventually realized that I simply couldn’t keep going to the same church any more.  I wasn’t comfortable; the people there – whom I very much liked – weren’t comfortable.  And so I had to go.   I didn’t actually leave off from church: I simply went to a more liberal one.  But the older friendships disappeared.  As did my friendships from college.

With family it was harder.  You can’t quit your family and just join a new one.  There were some truly awful conversations and disagreements – that lasted for years.  Eventually we got to a point where we simply didn’t talk religion any more.  That seems to make everyone happy, and we just get on with our own lives.

My view now is that there is no reason to try to convince a loved one of your personal religious views.  What’s the point?  There are so many other things to be interested in, to care about, to be passionate about, to share in common, to experience together – without talking about whether lit is creation or the Big Bang; Adam and Eve or evolution; the inerrancy or errancy of the Bible; the physical resurrection of Jesus or later legend; and so on.

So with my (original nuclear) family, we simply don’t go there.  It is more important to build up loving relations than it is to browbeat someone into agreeing with you about religion so that you will see eye to eye even on matters that are really important to you.  I have a new set of friends, who are just as great as the old ones, and with whom I have masses in common.  And so life is really good, and I’m very glad indeed that I made the transition.  But it was tough sledding at the time.

=================

Bio: Bart D. Ehrmanis the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here.  Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project.  He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs from The Bart Ehrman Blog.

>>>Photo Credits: By Dan Sears – Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400 ; By Raphael – www.masp.art.br, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2183170

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • This is refreshing, Bart, partly because I can relate to so many aspects of your story of personal exodus. Also, because it takes me back to my own evangelical youth and emergence through christian college and seminary. I can appreciate that journey now, and draw from the lessons in my own teaching and writing. I’m sure you remember people like Josh McDowell. I heard him speak and we all had copies of his “Evidence” book “proving” the resurrection, etc. I still get folks pushing me to “prove” it didn’t happen or “demonstrate” there’s no god. Sigh. I make it a rule not to engage “apologists” much anymore. I agree with what you say about relationships–you find the ones who “get it” and stay in relation with family who can center on blood and love. Thanks for you words, and your work.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    I have a new set of friends, who are just as great as the old ones, and with whom I have masses in common.

    Presumably he means “a lot of stuff” and not “the Catholic sacrament.”

  • See Noevo

    I would challenge anyone to
    explain to me how Luke can be right that the disciples saw Jesus in Jerusalem
    on the day of his resurrection and were told not to leave Jerusalem and never
    did leave Jerusalem until long after Jesus ascended to heaven forty days later…

    I’ll give it a try, Bart.

    Luke 24 verses 46, 47: “and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the
    dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to
    all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

    Check. The apostles preaching was to begin from Jerusalem.

    Verse 49: “And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on
    high.”

    Check. The apostles were not to begin the preaching until
    they were empowered by the Holy Spirit who would so act on them in the city of
    Jerusalem at Pentecost.

    Verses 50, 51: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.
    While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven.”

    Check. The “going away” event (the Ascension) outside of Jerusalem was not the “get
    going” signal. That signal came over a week later, at Pentecost, after they
    returned to Jerusalem.

    if Matthew is right that the disciples
    were told to leave Jerusalem to meet Jesus (some hundred miles north) in
    Galilee and they did leave Jerusalem right away and did see Jesus only in
    Galilee. Did they stay in town the whole time or not? I don’t see
    how it can be both.

    Matthew is right that the disciples should go to Galilee and
    would see Jesus in Galilee (Mat 28:7). But he did not say they would see him
    only in Galilee. In fact, he says they saw Jesus in Jerusalem moments after
    they ran from the tomb (verses 8,9).

    • mason lane

      Hey See Noevo, while you’re busy with your Bible apologist clean up kit here’s 538 Bible contradictions for you to explain including a plethora about the mythical Jesus character. https://skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/number.html

    • Jim Jones

      Bible contradictions are inherent in different fictional tales told by different authors for different audiences.

  • See Noevo

    My view now is that there is no
    reason to try to convince a loved one
    of your personal religious
    views… It is more important to build up loving relations
    than it is to browbeat someone into agreeing with you about religion so that
    you will see eye to eye even on matters that are really important to you.

    I guess your anti-Christianity posts here and your talks and
    books elsewhere are just meant for those ones you don’t love or don’t want to
    love.

    • carolyntclark

      See Noeve …”I guess your anti-Christianity posts here and your talks and
      books elsewhere are just meant for those ones you don’t love or don’t want to
      love.”
      Do you not realize that most participants on RD are of the same atheist mindset as Bart ?
      We speak the same godless language. Love abounds.

      • See Noevo

        carolyntclare,

        No, Bart said he wouldn’t trumpet his
        non-religious beliefs to his loved ones.

    • Linda_LaScola

      I think he’s saying there no need to try to convince loved ones of your changing religious beliefs. I’d say that extends to politics, too, or any issue that causes conflict among family members and close friends but doesn’t solve anything or change minds.

      His talks and books (like anyone’s) are directed to people who are interested in them, irrespective of his personal relationship with them.

      • See Noevo

        In other words, for those Bart loves the most,
        he’ll refrain from telling the truth (his truth). His truth is reserved for
        those he cares less about.

        P.S.
        What do you think of my response to Bart on Luke and Matthew?

        • Linda_LaScola

          I don’t take Bart that way. He has told “his truth” to family and it caused strained relations, so now he doesn’t discuss religion with them. Sounds wise to me, but I understand that fundamentalists would disagree because they they believe they must spread the Gospel. And I don’t know enough about Luke or Matthew to assess your response to him. But I know enough about Ehrman as a respected Biblical scholar to know that his position is based on firm information.

    • Jim Jones

      What do Christians know about love?

  • mason lane

    Bart, I really enjoyed reading about your personal journey, and your historical Jesus book. (This blog is easier reading)

    I regularly come across new TCP members, and new Facebook friends, who include you in the authors that were instrumental in them becoming agnostic/atheist. The primary impetus behind the vast majority of TCP participants becoming atheist/agnostic has been reading the Bible while daring to think instead of engaging in childish blind belief. You apparently share that impetus history https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/69a2ce30757c6b2d77c576bbb127e4a57217c81750b8d8ecb2a5da643a5a12e5.jpg .

    Good to hear from you as always. I see you have inspired our Apologist Troll in Residency See Noevo. 🙂

  • Ivan Beggs

    Not engaging Fundamentalists is to cede the political force that they are. They have a strong vigorous political agenda that is effectively being implemented in the US and around the world. Meanwhile, liberals in general and liberal Christians ministers refuse to engage in order to keep the peace with their congregations and community at large. As a result the so called mainline churches have dramatically lost membership in the past forty years. That is a good way to go down in defeat of the truth. The GOP knows where their solid base is; so, they support the Fundamentalists and vice versa.

    Liberal ministers need to teach more of what Bart Ehrman to their congregations. Trouble is, it is confuse the laity and empty out their churches. Ceding more political power to the Fundamentalists.

  • Jim Jones

    > I had my undergraduate students do a detailed comparison of the three accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, noting all the similarities and differences.

    Or, compare the different movies, TV series and comic book series about Superman. Because he really did come to earth to save us (and himself).