exapologist's de-conversion story

About my background and de-conversion: I should preface what follows by saying that, given the context, I’m going to focus almost exclusively on the intellectual side of my Christian life, although of course it was integrated with a significant emotional and spiritual life.

I converted to Christianity in my late teens, but evangelism led to questions, questions led to doubts and wanting answers, and these in turn led to apologetics. The apologetics thing lasted longer than expected -- 15 years (i.e., the whole span of my Christian life) and grad school pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy. I felt that my calling was to “be a witness” in academia by becoming a philosophy professor at a local university.

Given the likely audience of my testimony, I should probably belabor the extent to which I was an “apologetics nerd”. Within the span of my life as a Christian, I read just about anything worth reading (and not worth reading) in apologetics – aside from books that argued against theism and Christianity, probably about 120 or so books and who knows how many chapters and articles on philosophical, historical, and scientific apologetics, starting with McDowell and ending with Plantinga, Swinburne, and Alston (and “the new kids on the block” in philosophy of religion, such as Michael Rea, Dean Zimmerman and Michael J. Murray). For many years, I’d listen religiously to Greg Koukl’s “Stand to Reason” apologetics radio show on the weekends. I was an acolyte of William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland. I read and internalized all their books. I read just about all of Craig’s debates, and attended a couple of them. I would drive for hours to attend weekend apologetics seminars when either of these two was going to be there. I even ordered virtually all of the J.P. Moreland tapes out there, and listened to them over and over until they were worn out. I used their arguments in papers for undergraduate philosophy courses. My dream was to study and get an MA in philosophy of religion and ethics under J.P. Moreland at Talbot. I partially fulfilled that dream by attending Talbot for a year (however, since Talbot doesn’t have fellowships or TA-ships for their graduate students, I couldn’t afford it for very long, and so I transferred to a “secular” university to finish my graduate studies). I was a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and read their journals (Faith and Philosophy and Philosophia Christi) religiously for several years. I would even spend many a beautiful day in musty library basements reading past issues of philosophy of religion journals.

Ok, now that I’ve bored you with the extent of my nerdiness, I should get back to the point of this exercise: my de-conversion. I must say that the experience was very similar to Thomas Kuhn’s account of the causes of paradigm shifts in the sciences. Over the years, I had internalized and mulled over the overall case for Christian theism. But over these same years, there were questions for which either the apologetic answers had prima facie but ephemeral persuasiveness, or otherwise were never satisfactorily addressed at all. The slow cumulative effect of the problems reached critical mass and hit me like a ton of bricks about the time of last Christmas break. I was absorbed in grad school, and so I hadn't noticed the implications of previous things I gradually accepted:

1. First, I realized that all of the deductive arguments from natural theology that I had accepted at one time or another had significant shortcomings (e.g. invalid; valid, but had at least one dubious premise; valid, and maybe sound, but it doesn't get us all the way to theism).

This was a major blow, because I had a common practice of "modus tollens-ing" any serious objection to theism in general or Christianity in particular by appealing to the soundness of such arguments: "If objection x is sound, then theism (or Christianity) is false. But theism (or Christianity) isn't false (because sound deductive arguments A1-An show otherwise); so, objection x must not be sound." With the realization that I no longer accepted *any* of the deductive arguments, I saw the objections in a new light.

2. This put pressure on me to reconsider the "cumulative case" approach to the arguments, and to construe them as inductive arguments, or as clues to an abductive inference to the best explanation. The problem, though, is that once you construe all the evidence as inductive or abductive, then *all* the evidence, pro and con -- must be put into the "pot" -- and the posterior probability (when construed inductively) or what constitutes the best explanation (when construed abductively) rises or falls with each piece of data. So, for example, suppose we construe the cumulative case inductively, and take the "theistic” clues to be the contingency and apparent fine-tuning of the universe, religious experience, beauty, and the irreducibility of mental properties. Well, this evidence by itself may get us a probability of around .5 or .6 – or to be generous, say .9. Unfortunately, you can't do the final calculation – i.e., you can’t determine the posterior probability of theism (or Christian theism in particular) until you throw in the contrary evidence – e.g., problems of religious diversity, religious ambiguity, the evidential problem of evil, etc. But when you do that, it sees to me that the posterior probability goes well below one-half.

3. That was enough to put me in spiritual limbo. But the straw that broke the camel's back was when I read several of the "Third Questers" of the historical Jesus, of which the apologists are currently (and, I was to find, opportunistically) speaking of favorably – indeed, some of them are “Questers” themselves (e.g., Wright and Witherington). Of course, I had no illusions that these folks accepted the total conservative evangelical picture of Jesus, but I was told that they were supposed to show that the extremes of the Jesus Seminar on the one hand, and the earlier form and redaction critics on the other, were way off on Jesus, and that on the contrary, once we put Jesus in his context of 1st century Palestine, we can see that a lot of the material in the Gospels makes sense, and is thus probably authentic. These guys are "mainstream", and their conclusions are careful and judicious.

Now prior to this, I had read a bunch of the historical apologetics literature (Blomberg, Craig, Habermas, Boyd, Marshall, etc.), and had internalized their case for the reliability of the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus. But nothing they wrote prepared me for what I was about to read. It turns out that the normal, mainstream view about Jesus, for at least the last century or so, is that Jesus is some sort of failed eschatological prophet, on a par with John the Baptist. And there’s a good reason for why it’s mainstream: their case is very careful, judicious, beyond persuasive -- I think anyone who reads their arguments yet remains unpersuaded is either not very bright or resisting the evidence to the point of cognitive dissonance. Such an interpretation follows even if you take the New Testament documents largely at face value. E.g. (i) Jesus repeated prediction of “the end” in his generation, (ii) the successive watering down and back-pedaling re: this prediction, and of Jesus' obvious eschatological message of repenting in light of the kingdom being "at hand", in subsequent Gospels and the epistles, as the years went by and the end didn’t come; (iii) the fact that Jesus hung out with John the Baptist and accepted his baptism of repentance in light of "the coming wrath" indicates that he accepted John's eschatological message (as opposed to the message of the Pharisees and the Saducees), (iv) the fact that the earliest church believed that Jesus taught an immanent apocalyptic end; (v) the fact that the bulk of Jesus' parables are fundamentally about an eschatological kingdom (interesting how John's gospel, written much later, drops the predictions, the kingdom-of-God language, etc., which would make sense if the first generation had died, and the message was morphing into a non-eschatological one); and on and on.

The message was as obvious as anything, but I tried to look for answers. I read up on the responses from all the theological camps, from the conservatives (Blomberg, Marshall, McKnight, Wright, Witherington) to moderates (Meyer, Brown) to the Jesus Seminar. This only intensified the problem. The conservatives gave either dismissive or implausible responses; the moderates admitted the problem but denied that theses passages are authentic; ditto with the Jesus Seminar.

And suddenly, my faith was gone. As much as I wanted to, I just could not believe anymore. Anyway, that’s my basic story. If anyone likes, they may email me to talk more about it.



Blue Devil Knight said...

Very interesting stuff. Can you recommend something to me (I don't know anything about New Testament studies, and frankly don't even know much about the New Testament itself).

exapologist said...

Probably the best place to start re: the Third Questers is Bart Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium. Also good, and representative, are:

-E.P. Sanders
(i) The Historical Figure of Jesus
(ii) Jesus and Judaism

-Paula Fredricksen
(i) From Jesus to Christ
(ii) Jesus of Nazareth: King of the jews

Geza Vermes gives a good popular overview in The Many Faces of Jesus



Jon said...

Very interesting. Somewhat similar to my own experience, though it sounds like you studied apologetics longer than I did. My brother Bill is a contributor here and he and I were also big fans of Grek Koukl. Bill's even been in studio with him while he did a show.

Albert said...

The failed Parousia was the "nail in the coffin" for me. Thanks to Ed Babinski for his great article on this called "The lowdown on God's showdown".

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your story exapologist, and for the great references. I too thought that Christianity was true such that I didn't fear reading any of the liberal or skeptical works. But as I did I saw how that Christian apologetics did not sufficently answer the problems they set forth.

Glad to have you here at DC.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

I've been similarly struck by how apologists will plug the likes of Ehrman. I agree Ehrman&co are more credible than the Seminar, but it's so odd to see apologists pushing them, since they hardly agree with apologetic conclusions. Maybe they assume (probably correctly) that most of their readers won't check their sources.

jimmy said...

I have spent some time thinking about these issues and I am curious how you would deal with the 'language people' such as (Heidegger, Charles Taylor) who undermine the sort of rationalist empiricism sponsored by the like of Craig etc.

nsfl said...


You sound like a great addition to DC. Would you consider yourself now agnostic? A Deist? A generalized theist?

Looking forward to hearing more from you.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

I am familiar with all of the historical apologists you list save one: Marshall. Who is he? What has he written?

Anonymous said...

Chris it's I. Howard Marshall, see here.

Bill said...

Welcome exapologist,

I am looking forward to seeing more of your stuff. As Jon said I was heavily infulence by Greg Koukl and J.P. Moreland. My third post here was a sythesis of JP's argument on epistemology (from a tape I bought from STR Master's Series) and ideas insired by Greg's lectures on Relativism. You seemed to take apologetics to a whole other level though.

Rusty Cuyler said...

One of the books that really drove the nail in the coffin for me was Frederiksen's From Jesus to Christ, which I read for an undergrad history class many years ago. Such a methodical and careful analysis of the historian's approach to the NT and developing a systematic picture of who Jesus was. That book is an invaluable overview of the objective quest for the historical Jesus. It's in no way anti-Christian (unless one considers thoroughness and even-handedness to be anti-Christian), and I can't recommend it enough.

I heartily recommend JoN as well as a thorough analysis of why/how Jesus was probably executed. Additionally anything by Elaine Pagels-- The Gnostic Gospels was required reading for the above-mentioned course, and I can easily recommend it. There are also her more recent works, The Origin of Satan and Beyond Belief, which provide (further) fascinating insights to the evolution of early Christianity.

I can also recommend another work I had to read for that course-- a short work by the pagan Celsus called "On the True Doctrine," which makes a fairly effective and largely rational case against Christianity. Though Celsus' perspective is that of someone from antiquity, his arguments are pretty timeless. It allows one to note that even though the evidence for a constantly evolving Christianity is readily apparent with just a cursory glance at European history from the first century CE to the Reformation, many of the questions that skeptics have asked (or might have asked, had death not been the penalty for doing so) and counter-arguments advanced have remained remarkably unchanged.

Anonymous said...

i too am asking lots of questions. it is one thing to search or question christianity. yet what will i do with this Jesus of history?

nsfl said...

so, anon, who is the jesus of history?

lots of different opinions on that one, wouldn't you say? and isn't it integral to the question of christianity to evaluate its historical claims? who jesus is becomes the centrally important question of historical christianity, doesn't it?

exapologist said...

Hi Anonymous,

I agree that it's possible for christianity to be false, yet for the Jesus of history to have crucial religious significance -- e.g., perhaps he is God or God's chosen representative. The problem though, it seems to me, is that responsible scholarship (viz., the work of the key "Third Questers"), have made it sufficiently clear that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet.



Anonymous said...

You have made a number of claims about your academic accomplishments.


(You don't expect me to take in on faith, do you?)

Jeffrey Amos said...

Could you recommend a website discussing the views of the "third questers?" Do I have to (gasp) buy a book to begin learning about them?