Does the Truth Matter or Not?

Catholic Andrew Sullivan, in the context of reading the biblical scholar Bart Erhman’s new book, How Jesus Became God (Harper 2014), makes a crisp and refreshingly direct statement to his fellow biblical religionists who ignore expert consensus and the general findings of contemporary biblical scholarship and archaeology:

In the end, the sole criterion of a religion is whether it is true. And if you’re misreading its core texts and failing to understand their origins and nuances, you’re not committed to the truth.

Towel. Snap.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Does the Truth Matter or Not?

  1. I won’t tell you anything new, but it’s the same with everything in life.
    You’d think history showes us anything, but that’s so rare.
    Feel free to disagree but the world changes, and none of us have no control whatsoever over it.
    For instance, If only Obama had enough balls to put Vladimir to his place, but it seems like it’s not happening, welcome third world war.
    A truly inspiring post, thanks!

  2. Cloud2013 says:

    This just in “God is still dead” and Prometheus Unbound continues to bead dead horses.

  3. Cloud2013 says:

    Make that “Beats” dead horses.

  4. Tad Davis says:

    Interesting. I’m personally not caught up on the “historical Jesus” literature so I won’t comment on the claims being made. It is worth mentioning however that there are quite a few scholars that take issue with Ehrman’s analysis (see the link below for one such set of essays). That said it may be a bit premature to draw any conclusions as to whether or not contemporary Christians actually “is” misreading its core text – at least if one has not engaged with the arguments of those on the other side of the table.—-ebook/dp/B00I2P2OVS/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1398748855&sr=1-2&keywords=how+jesus+became+god+ehrman

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I’ve read both sides. I find apologetic Christianity to be more rationalizing than rational. I wish it were otherwise. I’d like to believe that a personal God exists and takes people to heaven when they die. But I don’t like the “believe in Jesus or go to hell” part of this equation. I don’t know how I could enjoy heaven as a believer knowing that the vast majority of other humans were burning in hell for all of eternity. I’ve never liked that part. I don’t understand how people can rationalize such a God as either good or just–or even competent. To be in heaven in this manner would be like living in Nazi Germany, happy in Berlin even as you know that others were being herded onto cattle cars. It just makes no sense (morally, emotionally, rationally). I’m with John Stuart Mill on the perniciousness of hell doctrine–and it’s a doctrine that Jesus apparently taught.

      • Tad Davis says:

        Ah, the problem of hell. Now that is a prickly pear. Like yourself I find it difficult to square the existence of an eternal place of torment and punishment with that of a loving and just God. Fortunately I don’t believe that the biblical account requires such a reading of this doctrine. In particular, doubts may be raised regarding the “nature” of hell, its “purpose” and its duration.

        For example, C.S. Lewis held an idiosyncratic view according to which hell was not a form of punishment imposed upon the unbelieving soul by God, but rather a state chosen by the reprobate him or herself. Hell is still a form of misery however, since in the absence of God and light the unbelieving soul grows ever more deprave. On this view it is the character of the reprobate, rather than the fiat of God that prevents them from entering into the beatific vision. I think this view suffers from a few important problems, but I’ll let that pass. There are other options to consider.

        Another possibility which some hold to be a better reading of the scriptures is that hell is a final destruction, or better, annihilation of the reprobate. This view shares with the classical model the belief that Hell is a form of divine punishment. Unlike the classical model however annihilationism does not believe that hell involves torment. Those condemned to hell simply cease to exist upon death. N.T. Wright I believe is one important proponent of this view.

        Yet another possibility is that hell is only a temporary state intended as a corrective (“purgative”) that will aid in the process of reforming the character of the reprobate and preparing them to receive the beatific vision. Thus conceived hell may indeed be unpleasant, but it is neither intended as (retributive) punishment nor is it everlasting in duration. All of God’s children shall eventually be reconciled to himself, and death and Hades will themselves be swallowed up in God’s final victory.

        Personally I lean toward this last universalist view, but am open the the possibility of anihilationism. In any even, any one of these three positions present what I think are attractive alternatives to the classical model that you and Mill find so pernicious.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        You’re obviously a humane person and so lean toward the least repugnant of hell positions in keeping with your faith. But since this post is devoted to truth, my problem with your response to the hell question is that it doesn’t matter which one of these options you personally prefer because there is no evidence that any of them is true anyway. The simplest explanation (and therefore probably the best) is that hell and heaven belief evolved because they are useful to religion, not because they are true. They assist contemporary priests, pastors, and imams in keeping their followers within the sheepfold; they’re the collie dogs of religion; a form of psychological barking and policing or religion’s borders. In all likelihood, there actually is no hell or heaven of any sort whatsoever–or, if there is, there’s not a shred of evidence for their existence.

        Again, I would love to live forever in heaven with my family, friends, and the rest of humanity. If hell doesn’t exist, I hope one day to happily be disabused of my skepticism. But it’s precisely because this desire for so happy an ending is seductive, that it’s important to ask whether or not it is true. “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort” (Orwell). It requires effort, not because critical thinking is especially hard per se, but because there is so much emotional fog–so many desires and aversions–driving thinking away from the truth. Our confirmation biases etc. are hard to overcome in getting at the truth of matters.

        An obvious example is the apologetic enterprise itself. Its focused on prejudice. The issue is decided in advance for the apologist–the Bible is true–and it becomes a matter of providing a logically possible route around every objection to the thesis.

        Look, for instance, at the title of Erhman’s book in contrast with the title of the apologetic book. Ehrman’s book invites the reader to explore something available to investigation and data: the historical process by which Christians came to believe that Jesus is God. In other words, we all know that this was not a rabbit-out-of-the-hat process. Beliefs emerge out of history, and Ehrman attempts to trace the history and evolution of an idea. Ehrman is a historian. He’s not pronouncing on the metaphysical question of God’s existence or Jesus’s divinity.

        But the historical question nerves out the apologist because it’s obviously not the sort of question that lends itself to certainty, clean presentation, and confident proclamation. The historical process of how religious sausage is made is not pretty, and everyone knows it. Ehrman is thus the Upton Sinclair of Christianity, writing his version of “The Jungle.” But the apologist really doesn’t want the religious flock to think all that much about the messy historical processes by which Christianity evolved. They just want to lay the plate of sausage before the consumer and say, “Eat.” So the history question gets sublimated or gussied up beyond serious recognition, and in place of history, the apologist introduces metaphysics: Jesus is God right up front, he became man, and now we’ll spin the history in the light of this (unsupported) assumption.

        It’s dishonest. It’s the game of confidence men, not seekers after truth. The truth is that we know less than we would like to–and pretend to know more than we do. The truth is that every idea has a history–an evolutionary history.

  5. Tad Davis says:

    Hmm, there is quite a bit packed into your response. I’ve only time at the moment to respond to some of it. One thing worth addressing is your claim that their is no evidence for the existence of heaven and hell. I guess my question would be what sort of criteria are you using to determine whether or not X counts as evidence for y? Does that criteria include testimony as a category of evidence? If not, I think you may be working with a deficient notion. If so, well then there are at least two different forms of evidence that can be brought to bear here: (1) the putative testimony of a divine being, and; (2) the testimony of those who have had near-death-experiences (NEDs).

    Of course, if you do not believe the Christian scriptures be co-authored by a divine being (or at least the bits about heaven and hell), then you may be inclined to dismiss (1) as evidence – but I take it that as an agnostic this is at least an open question for you, no? If so, then it may be to quick to dismiss this possibility out of hand. As for (2), their is a dearth of testimonials out there by individuals who have experienced, and research in this area has exploded of late. Of course it is tempting to many to attempt to explain these away as the byproduct of chemical reactions in the brain, or reactions to oxygen loss etc. However there are problems with these explanations, not least of which is that in numerous cases the resuscitated individual returns possessing knowledge that seems inexplicable apart from an actual out-of-body experience (e.g. being able to repeat a conversation that occurred in another hospital room no where near the room they were resuscitated in. So here too is another source of evidence of some sort of afterlife.

    Also, I’m not sure that appealing to Ockham’s Razor is really useful as an evaluative tool in assessing the evidence for and against an afterlife. Which explanation is simpler, that belief in an afterlife arose through the evolutionary process you sited or that there is a divine being who has conveyed the existence of an afterlife to humanity? It’s not clear to me what would count as a simpler explanation here, unless you are thinking that the former explanation requires the existence of fewer entities than the latter. But if this is what is meant then it clearly will not do since by the same logic one might argue for the absurd conclusion that, say, solipsism is likely true because it requires fewer entities than its alternative. In actuality I suspect what is going on is that you consider the prior probability of the existence of heaven and hell to be low and are thus inclined to view the former explanation as “simpler”. But as I’m sure you can see, this would render “simplicity” a subjective evaluative criterion that, if used in an argument, would beg the question against those who place a higher prior probability on the existence of an afterlife.

    Perhaps though you find this explanation simpler because of what you later call the “seductive” temptation within us all to desire to be happy. It is easy to imagine how such a desire might lead to wishful thinking about the afterlife. And your point about confirmation biases and other intellectual vices is well taken. On the other hand however it would be a mistake to dismiss the belief in heaven and hell for this reason alone (to do so would of course result in a genetic fallacy. For if theism is true, it is eminently probable that this desire was given us by God in order that we might seek our final good, the beatific vision. As C.S. Lewis has famously put it, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

    As to the apologetic enterprise as a whole, I take exception with the way you’ve characterized it. It is the case that every human society holds to some form of narrative or other that makes life intelligible to its members. This narrative will include certain beliefs and evaluations which are of central importance, and are thus understood to be worth defending. In the contemporary west for instance the notions of freedom and liberty are among such items. To characterize theists who wish to defend centrally important doctrines of their as “prejudiced” or as having decided the matter prior to inquiry seems to miss this larger point. It is not only consistent with the pursuit of truth that we seek to defend those beliefs we hold dear, but if we are lovers of truth it is necessary that we do so. The issue here is not that we oughtn’t to have certain pre-theoretical commitments, nor even that we oughtn’t to allow them to influence our theoretical inquiries. The real target of your criticism rather ought to be the intellectual vices (e.g. dishonesty, sloth, cowardice, gullibility, arrogance and folly) which would prevent one from responsibly engaging in discourse with those who held contrary views, or rightly grasping that a cherished belief has been shown to be mistaken. To be sure some Christian apologists exemplify these vices (though they are not the only ones). However we must distinguish between these individuals and the field itself, and criticisms of the former cannot be generalized to the latter.

    As to the specific concerns with Erhman’s critics, as I said, I have not yet had opportunity to read them (or him) so I cannot comment here. Possibly your analysis is correct, I don’t know.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Everything you say above is in the realm of plausibility. In other words, if you’re really determined to get from point A (the scant evidence for an afterlife) to point B (heaven and hell exist), you’re not violating any laws of logic, strictly speaking, to get there. But it seems to me that you are hanging a great deal on very, very little. What you say is logically possible, and you can spin Occam’s razor in ways that make belief in an afterlife seem a straightforward induction from what little we know, but are there really any truly good reasons to think the afterlife is a fact? Maybe I’m just being pessimistic, but it seems not.

      For instance, while I agree that testimony is a form of evidence, the sorts of testimony that, through history, have been offered up as “otherworld journeys” have always had a strong cultural component. Buddhists see Buddha in the tunnel of light; Catholics Mary; ancient Romans angels in Roman dress, etc.

      This can be rationalized as God giving people familiar images to ease them into the new state, or even that Satan is tricking non-Evangelicals with delusional images just before tumbling their souls into hell. But these sorts of “ad hoc-ing” rationalizations can be tagged onto the data of the testimony forever and ever, amen. Lots of things are logically possible here, but only one thing is true.

      And sometimes surprising things happen in these otherworld journeys (whether via NDEs or via DMT/mushroom based hallucinogenic experiences), to be sure, but this is true of dreams as well. Our dreams often surprise us. The simplest explanation is that NDEs are dream states of a very specific sort.

      By the way, my favorite NDE story of all time is Pam Reynolds’s, which you can probably find at YouTube.

      In any event, this sort of testimony would be substantially strengthened if the experiencer came back with some sort of knowledge that confirmed the supernatural nature of the experience. For example, if the person saw God and was told by God where a pot of gold was buried, or how to solve our energy problems, or the solution to an equation in physics, or what would happen in the future, that would be interesting. But this never happens. Never. It’s always some culturally conditioned generalization about love or connectedness that the experiencer returns with. And the sensibility rarely challenges pop cultural expectations (angels never critique capitalism; they focus on family, not strangers; they never tell experiencers what happened to the souls of those Jews who died in the Holocaust, etc.). For such a vivid and large-seeming experience, the actual content is always small. People are never spared from death and forced to return to their bodies for the purpose of telling the world anything it doesn’t already know.

      But all of this is kind of absurd to talk about really, especially after the Holocaust. It’s very, very hard to speak of God’s existence and of human history going according to a divine plan–and of the possibility of hell especially–after the Holocaust. Adorno once said it’s absurd to write poetry after the Holocaust, and it seems to me equally ridiculous to speculate on theology as well. The Holocaust pretty much killed off the traditional God hypothesis (in my view). In any event, no contemporary apologist can be taken seriously who cannot offer a sane account of the Holocaust as part of a personal God’s plan, and there really is no sane account of this on theistic terms. Whatever is said about the Holocaust and God tends to run pretty quickly to the grotesque and morally repugnant. The Holocaust poses difficulties for theology that are more than just the traditional problem of suffering.

      Christians have an especially problematic issue here because the Holocaust was the fruit of Christian antisemitism percolating in Europe for millenia. And the New Testament is full of antisemitic tropes (the Jews were responsible for the death of God; Jews are of the Synagogue of Satan; their hearts are hard; the Antichrist will be a Jew; God destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD because Jews crucified Christ; Jews spread malicious rumors that Jesus never raised from the dead; Jews were the chief enemies of Paul’s preaching; Jews that don’t convert are going to hell, etc.). Hitler just plucked the low-hanging fruit from the Christian tree of historic Christian antisemitism. It was its logical extension put into a nationalist and bureaucratic context. And a tree is known for its fruit.

      How then can anyone use the New Testament, after the Holocaust, as an authority for whether an afterlife exists–or for anything else for that matter? If the New Testament has shown itself so disastrously wrong about the Jews in tone, content, and its subsequent historical effect, how can one any longer seriously appeal to it?

      Here’s a book by some Christian intellectuals wrestling with this very issue:

      • Tad Davis says:

        It seems that we are weighting the evidence differently. I take it that there is sufficient independent evidence to establish that, for instance, Christ is who he claimed to be and that he rose from the dead. This then disposes me to trust his testimony in other areas, even where independent evidence for these claims is inaccessible.

        To my mind NDEs do provide compelling evidence that there is an afterlife of “some” kind, though admittedly the diverse nature of these experiences makes it difficult to discern much about its actual nature. For an exclusivist (one who believes that only those who respond to the gospel are saved) this would seem problematic given that those of other religions likewise have positive NDEs. However for one like myself who leans toward universalism this isn’t a problem, since, as you pointed out, it is consistent with a divine plan to utilize familiar objects (cultural narratives, family, friends) to draw all peoples to himself. Sure, other explanations can be given, but the important point is just that NDEs are an important source of evidence for an afterlife, and one that is at least consistent with broadly Christian views of it. I do not find this to be ad hoc.

        The other point to make is that these NDEs sometimes occur after clinical death (after the brain ceases to function), making it very difficult to argue that they are the result of neuro-chemistry. Likewise, many experiencing NDEs also have out-of-body-experiences (OBEs) in which they witness geographically distant events that they could not have been aware of had they not had an OBE. These two features make it difficult to offer some sort of reductivist explanation for this phenomenon.

        Regarding your point about how testimony of NDEs might be strengthened, no doubt the testimony could be strengthened in many ways. But do you really think that that is the intended purpose of these experiences? Rather in listening to these testimonies it seems to me that their purpose was to convey divine love for the individual in ways that go beyond mere propositions (and in some cases, to indicate to the individual that there were things in this life which needed to be seen to before returning). On the other hand just because these NDEs aren’t directly intended as evidence of the afterlife to those who are skeptical does not mean that they can’t also serve as such.

        The problem of suffering and of the Holocaust in particular is too large to tackle in a short reply, so leave it for another day. However I do want to respond to the charges of antisemitism you brought against the NT authors. It looks to me as if you are working with a fairly dubious assumption, viz, that it is antisemitic to accuse a Jewish population of certain short shortcomings. If this were the case then not only the NT writers but also the prophets of the OT would be antisemitic. But in any event there is no good reason to accept this assumption anyway. In general, criticizing a people group for certain sociological traits or wrongful actions does not amount to hate speech about that group. Though many contemporary Jewish leaders would have us believe otherwise, criticizing Israel for say its occupation of the West Bank, its proliferation of nuclear weapons, and its aggression toward neighboring countries is NOT antisemitic.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        I find your view completely reasonable. You and I are weighing the evidence (such as it is) differently and drawing different inferences. It’s impossible to set up a general rule for how to weigh evidence when you’re embedded in the system you’re trying to comprehend (as both of us are). You think Jesus’s resurrection is plausible and that NDEs are plausible contacts with “the other side.” I can see how you arrive at such a conclusion, I’m just a bit more agnostic and pessimistic about these things.

        With regard to NDEs, I find them to be very compelling stories of otherworld journeys. I feel the same way about DMT mushroom trips. Both suggest that there may be other mental “channels” that can be picked up if you hit upon the right “frequency.” I’m not prepared to dismiss them out of hand.

        But it’s like the question of bacterial life on Mars for me. There are intriguing hints that there may have been bacterial life on Mars sometime in its past (if not still in existence beneath the Martian surface, such as in caves). I’m keeping an open mind, but really I cannot see myself having a strong opinion either way short of new and compelling evidence.

        I feel this way about such questions as the resurrection of Jesus and NDEs. There’s always a possibility that something is there in these instances, but there’s just not enough evidence for me to hang a hat on.

        What bothers me is that there are a lot of confident people in the world who pick a side and defend it to a greater extent than the evidence warrants. They don’t, in other words, apportion their beliefs to the evidence. They engage in actions and beliefs far out ahead of the data. As an agnostic, I think that both theists and atheists are too frequently guilty of this.

        I can see how, if I learned that I had three months to live, that I might pray to Jesus and watch lots of YouTube videos telling NDE stories. It would give me some thin reed of hope that maybe I’d go on after death; that maybe I’d see my children again in an afterlife. It would be a human thing for me to behave in this manner. But if I’m hard and objective with myself, the evidence is just not that good for either of these things being true (Jesus’s resurrection or NDEs).

        Context is everything. Just how badly do you need to believe something on rickety or obscure data? How important is it to act? Absent the idea of hell or imminent death, what’s the hurry? If there’s room for deliberation, why not go on deliberating and keeping an open mind?

        I like a story that the Jewish intellectual Irving Howe once related. When he was a kid growing up in the Bronx, he told his Orthodox uncle that he was an atheist, and his uncle replied, “You think God cares?”

        I find that response wonderful and freeing. In other words, where did we get this narcissistic idea that God, if God exists, cares all that much whether we think (s)he exists or not? And why do we think a quick or definite decision about the question is really all that important?

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