An Atheist Converts to Christianity? Why?

Copied from this evangelical Christian websiteWinteryKnight

(Gary:  I will intersperse my comments in red.)

Dr. Michael F. Bird has a great article in Christianity Today. I’ve featured his debates with atheist historican James Crossley on this blog before, and I have the book they co-wrote.

In the article, Dr. Bird writes:

I grew up in a secular home in suburban Australia, where religion was categorically rejected—it was seen as a crutch, and people of faith were derided as morally deviant hypocrites. Rates for church attendance in Australia are some of the lowest in the Western world, and the country’s political leaders feel no need to feign religious devotion. In fact, they think it’s better to avoid religion altogether. 
As a teenager, I wrote poetry mocking belief in God. My mother threw enough profanity at religious door knockers to make even a sailor blush. 
Many years later, however, I read the New Testament for myself. The Jesus I encountered was far different from the deluded radical, even mythical character described to me. This Jesus—the Jesus of history—was real. (How do you know that the wonderful Jesus of the Gospels is a true description of the historical Jesus? How do you know that the Gospels accurately record true history and not legend or myth?) He touched upon things that cut close to my heart, especially as I pondered the meaning of human existence. (This is not the conclusion of someone who has looked at the evidence from both sides and reached a rational, non-emotion decision on that evidence.  This is the conclusion of someone looking for meaning to his life.)  I was struck by the early church’s testimony to Jesus: In Christ’s death God has vanquished evil, and by his resurrection he has brought life and hope to all. (This is belief based on something making you feel good or making your feel secure…especially if your life seems to lack meaning.  I hate to break this news to Christians:  most non-Christians, including atheists and agnostics, feel that life has a wonderful amount of meaning, and are content and happy, without Yahweh and Jesus.)
When I crossed from unbelief to belief, all the pieces suddenly began to fit together. I had always felt a strange unease about my disbelief. (Belief based on feelings.)  I had an acute suspicion that there might be something more, something transcendent, but I also knew that I was told not to think that. I “knew” that ethics were nothing more than aesthetics, a mere word game for things I liked and disliked. I felt conflicted when my heart ached over the injustice and cruelty in the world.   (Belief based on feelings.)
Faith grew from seeds of doubt, and I came upon a whole new world that, for the first time, actually made sense to me. To this day, I do not find faith stifling or constricting. Rather, faith has been liberating and transformative for me. It has opened a constellation of meaning, beauty, hope, and life that I had been indoctrinated to deny. And so began a lifelong quest to know, study, and teach about the one whom Christians called Lord.  (Belief that you have an all-powerful, all-knowing Body Guard in the Sky who will only allow what is best for you to ever happen, and when you die, will take you to a place of indescribable joy and eternal pleasure (sorry, Christians, but no virgins for you), this is very, very comforting and reassuring.  But just because it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside does NOT mean that it is real!  This author found a security blanket.  He found his security blanket based on feelings and intuition, not based on evidence.  Let’s keep reading.)
And now specifics:
For many secularists, Ehrman is a godsend who propagates common misconceptions about Jesus and the early church. He believes there was a spectrum of divinity between gods and humans in the ancient world. Therefore, he asserts that the early church’s beliefs about Jesus evolved: from a man exalted to heaven to an angel who became human to a pre-existent “divine” person who became incarnate to a subordinated or lesser god to being declared one with God. 
My faith and studies have led me to believe otherwise. First-century Jews and early Christians clearly demarcated God from all other reality, thus leading them to hold to a very strict monotheism. That said, Jesus was not seen as a Greek god like Zeus who trotted about earth or a human being who morphed into an angel at death. Rather, the first Christians redefined the concept of “one God” around the person and work of Jesus Christ. Not to mention the New Testament writers, especially Luke and Paul, consistently identify Jesus with the God of Israel.   The overwhelming majority of Jews rejected in the first century, and for the last 20 centuries, the idea that there could be three persons in one God.   
In the synoptic gospels, Jesus never specifically calls himself God.  He only does that in John, the last gospel to be written.  Are we really to believe that a Galilean peasant was allowed to schlepp around Judea and Galilee for three years proclaiming to be God Himself, and only after Jesus turns over some money changers’ tables in the Temple, did the Jewish authorities finally decide to do something about him??  Preposterous.  In the Synoptics, Jesus is presented as the Jewish messiah, for the Jews.  In John, written in the 90’s or later, is Jesus now the eternal Son of God, for the entire world, present with God since the beginning.   
It is a developing legend, folks.
Many people get the idea that Jesus was just a prophet and never claimed to be divine. But a careful look at the Gospels shows that the historical Jesus explicitly claimed to exercise divine prerogatives. (Jesus is never specifically called the “Son of God” in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Where Christians point to Jesus declaring his divinity in the Synoptics, secular scholars can show he did not.)  He identified himself with God’s activity in the world. He believed that in his own person, Israel’s God was returning to Zion, just as the prophets had promised. (In the Synoptics, Jesus proclaims (only in private to his disciples) to be the messiah, not God the Creator.) And he claimed he would sit on God’s throne. (He said he would sit on the throne of David, not the throne of God the Creator.) These claims, when studied up close, are de facto claims to divine personhood, the reasons religious leaders of the day were so outraged.  (Jesus wouldn’t have lasted a weekend if he had proclaimed to be God the Creator.)
Evidence shows that Jesus claimed to be God incarnate, and within 20-some years after his death and resurrection, Christians were identifying him with the God of Israel, using the language and grammar of the Old Testament to do so.  (Quote please.)
Sure, some sects in the first few centuries held heretical beliefs about Jesus. But the mainstream, orthodox (you mean the group that won the early Christian civil war, and therefore, determined what was “orthodox” and what was “heresy”…)  view of Christ’s identity was always consistent with and rooted in the New Testament, though orthodox Christology became more refined in the following centuries.
It’s definitely true that you can recover a high Christology (a view of Jesus as divine) from the earliest gospel, Mark. I wrote about it in a previous post. But the earliest evidence for Jesus is that creed in 1 Corinthians 15, that I blogged about recently.
Here is his conclusion:
Some have great confidence in skeptical scholarship, and I once did, perhaps more than anyone else. If anyone thinks they are assured in their unbelief, I was more committed: born of unbelieving parents, never baptized or dedicated; on scholarly credentials, a PhD from a secular university; as to zeal, mocking the church; as to ideological righteousness, totally radicalized. But whatever intellectual superiority I thought I had over Christians, I now count it as sheer ignorance. Indeed, I count everything in my former life as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing the historical Jesus who is also the risen Lord. For his sake, I have given up trying to be a hipster atheist. I consider that old chestnut pure filth, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a CV that will gain me tenure at an Ivy League school, but knowing that I’ve bound myself to Jesus—and where he is, there I shall also be.
I recently led a Bible study on the passage he is paralleling there – it comes from my favorite book of the Bible, Philippians.
What I like about Bird’s story is that he was a skeptic, and his study of history is what changed his mind.  (No.  That isn’t what the author of this article said.  It was his conclusion that Jesus could give meaning to his empty life that brought him to believe in the wonderful Jesus of the gospels.  Once he had the good feelings that belief in Jesus brought him, he then went looking for evidence to confirm his decision.)  This contradicts a narrative that young people are sold at the university, which is that the more education you have, the more you turn away from theism in general, and Christianity in particular. (Well-documented statistical studies indeed show that the more education a young person receives in a secular university (not Bible college), the less fundamentalist, less bigoted, and less religious they become.)  I wouldn’t even classify him as a super conservative scholar, by any means – he’s just a good scholar (Good why?  Because he agrees with your position?)  who believes whatever he thinks is historically sound. It just turns out that you can recover enough historically to ground a commitment to Jesus Christ. (You did not demonstrate that in this article.  Even if Jesus did claim to be God the Creator, he still has to prove that with verifiable evidence.  Christians have no verifiable evidence for their claim of a resurrection other than assumptions and second century hearsay.) You can’t get everything as a historian, but you get enough to cause a change of mind about who Jesus was.  (Or, as in the case with this author, you look for meaning for your life, take a look at a nice guy character in four anonymous first century, middle eastern works of literature, and then, after establishing your world view, look for evidence to confirm it.)

Sorry.  I don’t buy it.

And one last comment.  I don’t have any studies that I can quote that back this up, but I would bet that for every atheist who becomes a Christian, there are 50 Christians who become non-believers (either atheist or agnostic).

One thought on “An Atheist Converts to Christianity? Why?

  1. re: “Many years later, however, I read the New Testament for myself.”

    the writing makes it look like he was an atheist for many years. however, his bio at patheos shows:

    Bachelor of Ministries from Queensland Baptist College of Ministries (1999-2001)

    so, his very first college degree was from a baptist college, with a major related to religion. hmmmm. methinks he doth protest too much about how atheistic he was, and for how long.

    i'm sure that sells really well to the christians that want to believe that smart people become christians, and there's massive data to support the christian view, etc. however, he doesn't seem to understand the skeptic perspective at all, because regardless of his conclusions, he doesn't demonstrate in his arguments that he understands the criticism of who wrote the bible and when, and why skeptics don't take them as factual. regardless of your conclusions, if you don't understand the assumptions your conclusions are based on, and the differing assumptions and perspectives of your critics, i would argue you don't really understand your actual beliefs very well.


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