My nonconversion story. Part 6: University.

This is the sixth part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years in my teens and twenties looking at all the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.

By this point, I’d finished my A-levels, narrowly missed the grades I needed for medical school (turns out that spending large chunks of what’s supposed to be your study time on obsessing over religious questions isn’t a great strategy for getting good grades; who’da thought it), done resits, and started medical school, which comes directly after school in the UK rather than being a postgrad degree. All the rest of the story takes place in my first few years at medical school, which puts me in the ’19 – early 20s’ age range at this point.

I’d also, by this point, concluded that – despite all the hype – no-one seemed to have any convincing evidence either way on the question of whether God existed, and so I’d reached the point of considering mysef an agnostic. (I’d eventually move on to atheism, but that wouldn’t be until years later.) However, I was still as torn as ever on the question of Christianity. (On the one hand: horrible theology and a lot of reasons to doubt the accuracy of the gospels. On the other: lack of a good answer to how Christianity could have got started if it wasn’t true.) So, I kept right on browsing the ‘religion’ section in the library shelves and bookshops, looking for any new thoughts on the matter.

(One benefit of moving to university was that I now got to do this in the stunningly gorgeous Picton Reading Room at Liverpool Central Library, a vast round room with bookshelves three stories high edged by galleried landings reached by wrought-iron spiral staircases, all topped off with a giant arched dome across which every little noise softly echoed back and forth; to this day, when I think of the Picton Reading Room, I can hear those soft triple echoes. It’s the most breathtaking public library I’ve ever been in. If you’re ever in Liverpool, do go and check it out.)

By this point I’d spent enough time looking at pro and con arguments that most of the stuff I found was just a repeat of things I’d read already. Even so, however, there were several times when I did come across something new on the matter. I’ve already written about one such – C.S. Lewis’s infamous Moral Argument – but here are some others that were more specifically Christianity-relevant. (I’ve bundled them all together into one post, so it’s a long one.)

Definition of a delusion

This one was actually from lectures, not from my reading; first-year psychology, if I recall correctly. (If not, then I suppose it would have been final-year psychiatry and hence outside the time frame I’m covering here, but it’s relevant anyway so I’ll put it in.)

What we learned was that a delusion is a fixed unshakeable belief, derived by abnormal means, that can’t be explained in terms of the person’s cultural background. The bit that’s relevant here is the last part of that definition. Our lecturer explained to us that we have to be careful when assessing people from different cultures who are expressing strange beliefs, because something that seems delusional to us could actually be a normal belief within their culture and would therefore not be delusional. He gave us an example, which my memory has probably garbled beyond recognition in the intervening three decades but which was, to the best of my recall, a story of an isolated society where the men claimed to be red macaws and were thus initially thought to be mad by the explorers who first made contact until it emerged that this was actually part of a normal belief for that culture. (If anyone has a clue what anthropological story I’m semi-remembering there, I’d love to have the details clarified.)

So for me, of course… boom. Jesus and his claims to be the son of God/the Messiah! One of the ploys I’d seen in apologetics books was the quoting of an anonymous psychologist/psychiatrist assuring the readers that the only way Jesus could have made those claims was if he was either mad or correct; not to mention, of course, C.S. Lewis’s famous statement that Jesus must either be a devil, as mad as all those well-known lunatics who think they’re poached eggs (now there was a man who didn’t have much knowledge of mental illness), or genuinely the Son of God. But, in fact, we actually had to consider Jesus’s claims in the light of what they would have meant in his culture; and, while it was hardly an everyday occurence in first-century Judaism for men to go around claiming to be the Messiah or son of God, it also wasn’t a sign of insanity. The people of that time and culture firmly believed that someone – some apparently normal human being – was going to be chosen by God as the Messiah. As for ‘son of God’, that could be used metaphorically to describe men thought to have a special relationship with God. Jesus’s claims were normal within his culture. Thus, according to actual psychiatric definitions, they weren’t signs of insanity, and so the infamous ‘trilemma’ wasn’t actually a trilemma at all.

God for Nothing

God for Nothing: Is Religion Bad For You? was a book by a vicar (Richard MacKenna) discussing, as I recall, his thoughts on the role of Christianity and how to interpret the gospels in our society. I don’t remember much of the specifics, although I recall finding it a readable and thoughtful book overall; however, one particular point stayed with me.

MacKenna, writing about the ways in which the gospels are interpreted in our time, used the analogy of a contemporary newspaper article which described Thatcher as being ‘left in rags’ until another polititian ‘brought her her glass slipper’ and pointed out how easily this could be misunderstood by historians finding this isolated scrap in two thousand years in the absence of any surviving Cinderella stories. Similarly, he argued, we have no way of knowing which passages the gospel writers might have meant as symbolic at the time in the knowledge that the people for whom they were writing would get their cultural references, but which are getting misinterpreted by us two thousand years later. It was a really helpful reframing of the usual apologetics approach of ‘were they wrong or lying or did this all happen this way? CLEARLY THE LATTER’. And, yes, it does sound obvious now; but it was the first time I can remember seeing it framed that way, and it made quite an impression on me.

The Mythmaker

I found Hyam Maccoby’s The Mythmaker in one of those atmospheric browsing sessions on the Picton Room’s galleries. Maccoby was a Jewish Talmudic scholar who did exactly what I’d been longing to see a Jewish scholar do; he interpreted the New Testament in light of what we know about rabbinical teachings and Jewish culture of the time, and wrote about this in a straightforwardly readable way. And, while he didn’t address my ever-present question about how the disciples could have come to believe Jesus had been resurrected if this wasn’t the case, he did come up with intriguing theories about how early Christianity could have progressed from there.

To cut a long story short, Maccoby analysed the information we get from Paul’s letters and from Acts and what we can piece together about Paul’s teachings and his uneasy relationship with the early church, and argued that Jesus and his original sect were practicing Jews with a typical Jewish concept of the Messiah as being the one who’d lead the longed-for rebellion against Rome, and that the change to a new religion with a new (and very un-Jewish) concept of salvation theology came about with Paul, the eponymous mythmaker, who resolved the conflicts in his own life by mentally fusing Jewish, Gnostic, and pagan beliefs in an entirely new way.

Maccoby’s argument left me simultaneously bowled over and unsure what to make of it; I’d already learned, by that stage in my life, how easy it was for an argument to sound completely convincing until you found someone who knew enough to give you the other side. I decided that I’d better, on general principles, assume he was wrong about at least some of what he said; not because I could spot any obvious errors in reasoning, but because it seemed unlikely that he could have been that accurate in figuring out what took place two thousand years ago in a different culture. Looking back thirty years later, I think that was a sensible approach. While Maccoby made several well-argued and evidence-based claims, he did also have an unfortunate tendency to jump from those to assumptions.

But, for all that, I now had a plausible theory about how Christianity could have transmuted from Judaism and then taken off, that would never have previously occurred to me but which now made complete sense. And that meant, logically, that explanations in that category could exist. If Maccoby’s explanation was the wrong one… well, it was still perfectly plausible that the right one was something other than ‘because Jesus really was sent by God as a sin sacrifice and Christianity’s whole awful theology is true’.

Operation Judaism

You might have heard of Jews for Jesus, an evangelical Christian organisation specifically targeting Jews for attempted conversion. Operation Judaism was a group set up in the early ’80s to counter this. (This particular group no longer seems to be running; Jews for Judaism now does the same thing with a broader reach, countering other proselytising religions as well as Christianity, so I assume Operation Judaism was either subsumed or renamed at some point.)

While I was at medical school, the university’s Jewish Society invited Operation Judaism to come and speak. So, to my delight, I got to hear a talk from a group whose entire raison d’être was explaining inaccuracies in Christian theology from a Jewish viewpoint.

Picture of a handout

Which was so interesting to me that I’ve kept their handout to this day.

The speaker covered multiple useful points, including Jewish concepts of the Messiah (about which, of course, I already knew something) and key differences between Jewish and Christian theology (Christianity’s basic concept of being hopelessly lost to sin/doomed to hell for the least mistake is alien to Judaism, which is strong on personal redemption via genuine effort and repentance). But the most helpful part was their discussion of ‘proof texts’, the passages from the Jewish scriptures that Christians claim to be prophecies of Jesus’s coming. I wrote a couple of posts ago about the examples I’d spotted for myself from reading the gospels, but the Operation Judaism speaker took the time to explain a couple of major ones for which the flaws are less easy to spot without a good background knowledge of Jewish scripture; Isaiah 53 and Daniel 9:24 – 27.

Thinking back, I honestly can’t remember coming across Isaiah 53 before that talk. If not, don’t ask me how I’d managed to miss it with the amount I’d read, as it’s a biggie in Christian apologetics. It describes a ‘Suffering Servant’ who was ‘wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities’, who is, of course, believed by Christians to be Jesus dying for the sins of the world. However, I now learned that ‘servant’ was a term often used metaphorically of the Jewish people and which seemed in context to be meant exactly that way here, and that the passage included a line that translated as ‘he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days’, which fitted metaphorically with the ‘Jewish people’ interpretation’ but didn’t fit well with the interpretation that this was a prophecy of Jesus. Nor did the lines about him having ‘no form or majesty that we should look at him’ or being ‘a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity’. It’s easy to read salvation theology into this passage retrospectively, but, read in context, it doesn’t really introduce the idea.

I had heard about the Daniel 9 prophecy; I remember one of the books I read, written by a Jewish man who’d converted to Christianity, assured me that the time given in in the prophecy for the coming of the Messiah worked out exactly to the year Jesus started preaching, how could this be a coincidence, etc. What I learned now, however, was, firstly, that the passage just used the word ‘messiah’ in its more general sense of ‘anointed one’ (a term that Jews of the time used for any king, or for that matter just in its literal sense for anything that was anointed; Daniel also uses it to refer to the Holy of Holies in the Temple), and, secondly, that the time period didn’t come out at Jesus’s time unless you lump two time periods from the passage together in a way not supported by the wording. Interestingly, one thing I’ve since learned that they didn’t point out is that even if you do that the timing still doesn’t work out as coinciding with anything significant in Jesus’s life, and Christians have to play around with the calendar to make it come out at an appropriate time. I have no idea why Operation Judaism didn’t add that. Even without that, however, I now had enough information to spot the flaws in the apologetics about this passage.

In short; yet again, claims made by Christian apologists did not hold up when examined. Which, by this time, was not even a surprise.

So, where did that leave me?

At this point, if you’re still reading at all, you’re probably wondering why I was even still hung up on this. I’d found plenty of reasons to doubt the truth of Christianity’s claims, and it wasn’t as though I was tied to the religion by teachings or fears implanted in childhood, the way some people are.

But, nevertheless, I was still scared by the horrifying prospect of a universe in charge of a sociopath willing to allow millions of people to burn in eternal hellfire due to simple mischance of which time and place they were born to. And I still didn’t have good answers for the claim that the disciples would never have started preaching Jesus’s resurrection unless they had convincing evidence it was true. What if I was getting it all wrong, and God really was that awful? The prospect niggled at my mind and I couldn’t shake it. And so, I kept on looking.

Next up: what happened when I tried asking God directly for help with this.


  1. txpiper says

    “It’s easy to read salvation theology into this passage retrospectively, but, read in context, it doesn’t really introduce the idea.”
    It doesn’t?
    “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed….and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all….for the transgression of my people was he stricken….Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin”
    Those are hardly subtle indications. Anyone reading such things, written some 750 years before the crucifixion, has good reason to pause. Ditto with Psalm 22.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    One theory about how Christianity spread despite being based on a false belief is stated in the Gospels directly, in Matthew 28:12-15.
    “After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.”
    If you accept the idea that this was a real guy and the crucifixion actually happened (which is admittedly a stretch), then this passage gives you a perfectly reasonable explanation for the empty tomb: there were several different sects of disciples, and one sect moved the body without telling the other sect. No more explanation necessary.

  3. KG says

    “It’s easy to read salvation theology into this passage retrospectively, but, read in context, it doesn’t really introduce the idea.”
    It doesn’t? – txpiper@1

    No, it doesn’t. How do you account for the stuff about seeing his seed and prolonging his days? Or Isiah 53:12:

    Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong. (KJV)

    Do you just ignore the bits that don’t fit?

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the word ‘messiah’ in its more general sense of ‘anointed one’ (a term that Jews of the time used for any king, or for that matter just in its literal sense for anything that was anointed…

    “Any king” – or just Jewish kings? The post-Exilic text noted that Cyrus “was anointed”, which I read as the priesthood having specially honored him (probably symbolically in absentia: I doubt he would have let them smear their goo on his body in person). Would they have recorded that in that way if they also took it for granted?

  5. says

    Dr Sarah,
    As I understand it, Lewis (quite reasonably) realized that he was going to have to stretch Liar, Lunatic, or Lord to include Legend—the possibility that gospel stories were invented. I mention this, first, because I have a longstanding, persistent fascination with the gospels as stories (and I gather you have had analogous experiences.) Secondly, I think that the notion of stories as stories (to be considered from many angles) is especially pertinent here.
    Lewis, in one of those bizarre twists of human experience, chose an unbelievably unsuitable example upon which to base his contention that the gospels do not read like the legends with which he was famously familiar. He chose John 8’s story of The Woman Caught in Adultery. John 8, as I’m sure you are aware, is one of the most potently challenged passages in the Bible—very likely to be an interpolation. Secondly, it raises questions of morality and sexual ethics that tie the churches in knots.
    Thirdly, and most importantly, Lewis chooses within the story the references to Jesus bending over and writing on the ground. This is what Lewis fixes upon—that the “writing” detail does not further the story, and it is therefore not a characteristic of a legend. Lewis imagines that this apparently superfluous detail was included only because it was in fact observed.
    On the other hand, thinking carefully about The Woman Caught in Adultery as a story can challenge Lewis’ assertion. Jesus was working a crowd. The ancients were less-developed than us in many ways, but the tricks of skullduggery are as old as human civilization, and many of them—such as clever distraction—are indispensable to street entertainers. Jesus appearing unconcerned with—and therefore above—the growing discomfiture of the crowd is exactly what would be expected of him—or exactly what might be invented about him by some clever ancient. The writer of The Woman Caught in Adultery (if indeed it is an invention) would have needed no training or education beyond the near-universal experience of being made a fool of a time or two.
    I do not think that the matter of gospel stories as stories can be over-emphasized. At the very least, anything called a “story” would merit being viewed from the positions of its protagonists—their time, their place, their backgrounds, their (admittedly presumed) attitudes and ideas, their likely reactions to unfolding events. Moreover—and I will confess that a clumsy and perhaps unfriendly burden is placed on the hearers of such stories—gospel “stories” require examination even as the hearer is admonished to refrain from salient observations such as “Why is Jesus called good for saving someone’s child from a deadly affliction when he knows full well he could cure simultaneously every innocent suffering child on the globe?”
    It is, I believe, of value to view gospel stories as stories even with the “ground rules” that must apply. I would suggest, Dr. Sarah, that the story of The Gentile Woman Called a Dog—a story that you view, quite understandably, with a measure of distaste—is a ripe subject for such examination. If a gospel story is looked to for lessons about how Jesus behaves in a moment (such as him using the term “dogs”) then there is really no rejoinder to the contention that at that moment he is treating the world’s suffering innocent—Gentile or Jew—as worse than dogs. All such persons arguably deserved Jesus’ succor, whether they were in a position to ask him for it or not.
    But if the story of The Gentile Woman is allowed to play out, two worthwhile considerations emerge. Taken as a whole (and under the “ground rules” that I believe must be imposed) the story cannot exist but under the cloud of suspicion and paranoia that the larger text, and our larger knowledge of the era, make plain. The Gentile Woman cannot afford to be seen having a warm exchange with Jesus, and Jesus knows it. Jesus is simultaneously playing two crowds: his outnumbered and surrounded disciples, and the larger community. For him to engineer an adversarial exchange with the woman is entirely consistent with the story.
    And yet (in Matthew especially) how does the story play out in the end? Not only does the woman get “The devil is gone out of thy daughter” (Mark), she is told, “O woman, great is thy faith” (Matthew). Is that so little a matter? She is not told, “Great is your need,” or “Great is your sorrow,” or “Great is your imploring.” The churches, unsurprisingly, have tended to treat the story as evidence of Jesus’ larger Mission to the Gentiles, and the opponents of the churches have zeroed in on the “dogs” part.
    But is any of that really what the story—as a story—is about in the end? There is no hint of a notion that any proselytizing or conversion has occurred. The woman believes that the divine associated with The Son of David is beneficent and will respond to petitions with understanding of the plights of humanity. That’s it.
    I mention this particularly, Dr. Sarah, because it reminds me of part of what you wrote in 2018 (and linked to above): “The problem with C. S. Lewis’s moral argument – Part 1”:
    “The history of improvements in morality, I realised, effectively consisted of pushes for increasing broadening of the group of people included in the Us group, and increasing realisation that that really ought to include all humans everywhere.”
    At bottom, I think that is what The Story of the Gentile Woman Called a Dog—if as some such it ought to be named—is about.

  6. KG says

    I see you have no answer to the points raised by Dr. Sarah or by me – clearly you do simply ignore the bits that don’t fit.

  7. txpiper says

    KG @7,

    I responded to one point raised by Dr. Sarah. She said that Isaiah 53 “doesn’t really introduce the idea” of “salvation theology”. I provided quotes that clearly show that it does. I can comfortably stand by that.

    Your objections are subjective and based on poor interpretations, and you can stand by those.

  8. Dr Sarah says

    @txpiper: Hello, and thanks for commenting here! Sorry; to cut a long story marginally shorter, I omitted a clarification of what I meant here by ‘salvation theology’.

    The salvation theology in Christianity isn’t just the idea that suffering or pain can count towards God’s willingness to look favourably on others (which I agree is an idea found in this passage and elsewhere in Judaism). It’s the idea that external salvation is necessary because without it all humans are doomed and can do nothing to save themselves. That isn’t in this passage, and isn’t an idea found in Judaism overall; Jewish theology is much more about the idea that everyone has the ability to choose righteousness and lead a righteous enough life that God will look favourably on them.

    On top of that, there are some translational issues. In verse 5, the word translated as ‘for’ in the translation you’re using apparently means ‘because of’. ‘For’ is ambiguous and can potentially be read as the injuries being a sacrifice to make up for the transgressions/iniquities; however, ‘he was wounded because of our transgressions, bruised because of our iniquities’ doesn’t carry that same meaning. Likewise, ‘thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin’ doesn’t really match the translation in the Jewish version I linked to, so, although I don’t know Hebrew and can’t comment on whether the translation you’ve quoted is possible, it seems there’s at least some doubt about whether that’s the correct translation.

    Bear in mind that background expectations play a huge part in how we interpret things. When someone who already believes that Jesus had to be tortured and died in order for the sins of the world to be forgiven reads this passage, of course those verses leap out and it looks ‘obvious’ that it’s a prophecy of Jesus as a sin sacrifice. But try to imagine reading that passage (a good translation of it) in a world where Christianity didn’t exist, where you knew nothing about that. What is there, in that passage, to tell you ‘Everyone in the world is a hopeless sinner who needs the Messiah to die for their forgiveness’ if you don’t already hold that belief to read back into the passage?

    As for what you said about KG’s comment… it isn’t ‘subjective’ that the passage contains phrases that translate as ‘he shall see his seed and prolong his days’ or talk about the person described in the passage receiving ‘spoil’. I’ve checked; there are multiple reliable translations giving similar wording, and commentaries I’ve read confirm that the Hebrew uses a word that means ‘seed’ in the metaphorical sense of biological descendants. I therefore don’t believe your claim that these are ‘poor interpretations’ holds up, and I think that if you want to make that claim then it’s on you to justify it.

  9. txpiper says

    Hi Dr. Sarah,

    “salvation is necessary…isn’t an idea found in Judaism overall”

    It it isn’t, it should be. Atonement is a very developed concept in the Old Testament.

  10. anat says

    txpiper @11: You don’t understand salvation nor atonement in Judaism. (And no, reading the Hebrew Bible is not enough. The Hebrew Bible is only a small part of what some Jews believe.)

    In Christianity the most important thing people need to be saved from is Hell (by whichever interpretation). In Judaism there is no equivalent. Suffering in the afterlife is considered to be temporary. So what do Jews want to be saved from? Well, all kinds of worldly suffering. Starvation, illness, warfare, deaths of loved ones, etc. But the most important ones are at the community level – conquest by an enemy, exile etc. And the role of the savior is to reverse the fate of the exiled and oppressed community.

    An individual atones for their own sins – by begging the forgiveness of those one wronged and making up to them, by prayer, fasting, and giving to charity. Thus one gets to live another year. No savior needed, there is no role for a savior in this relationship. The savior is only involved in the communal salvation.

  11. Dr Sarah says

    @txpiper, #11:

    “salvation is necessary…isn’t an idea found in Judaism overall”

    That quote of mine has been snipped so badly that the meaning has been destroyed. I’m going to repeat it with key bits restored and italicised for clarification: The idea that external salvation is necessary because without it all humans are doomed and can do nothing to save themselves isn’t in this passage, and isn’t an idea found in Judaism overall.

    Atonement is a very developed concept in the Old Testament.

    Yes; and the teaching of the Jewish scriptures is that it works. As per some of the things I quoted in part 8 (plus established rabbinical teaching), Judaism teaches that when a person genuinely repents, does what they can to atone, and works on living a better life, that is enough for God to forgive them. It’s an ongoing process, rather than a once-and-done – you’ll slip up and do wrong things again and need to repent and atone again – but it’s a process that works, according to the Jewish scriptures. The whole idea that humanity’s situation regarding sin is hopeless without an external saviour coming in to do the job is a very non-Jewish idea. From what I’ve read, it seems to be much closer to Gnostic thought; in any case, it isn’t part of traditional Judaism, and isn’t introduced in Isaiah 53.

  12. Dr Sarah says

    @brucegee1962, #2:

    While we’ll never know what did happen, that particular explanation strikes me as vanishingly low probability. Firstly, there’s no evidence that there were different sects among his followers at that time, and secondly, it’s extremely hard to see what motive the disciples would have had for deliberately tricking people (as opposed to what motive they would have had for wanting to convince themselves that Jesus was still alive, which is something they would have been highly motivated to do).

    What’s most likely is that the disciples managed to convince themselves of something they desperately wanted to believe (that Jesus hadn’t left them for good but was still coming back to be their Messianic leader, thanks to God’s miraculous intervention), and that the story was then embroidered over time to add in the bodily appearances from gLuke and gJohn and the story about the tomb being found empty.

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