Faith: “Help My Unbelief”


Despite the title of this post, I am not actually petitioning aid for my unbelief. I’m well beyond that point. But make no mistake about it: I have vigorously prayed this prayer many times during my first forty years of life as a believer. Alas, that prayer was never answered. My unbelief was not abated by divine intervention. The Line, “Help my unbelief” is from a story in Mark 9. A man is desperate for Jesus to help his dying son. He seemed like a person who would have tried anything, and probably did. He would have tried anything, believed anything. He was desperate and afraid. We’ve all been there.

The line has always captivated me from the moment I first read it as a child. The insertion of this very human moment contradicted everything I thought I understood about faith. It left me hopeful, but hopelessly confused. It seemed to stand in stark contradiction with other passages that required absolute faith. Jesus could do no miracles in his home town because of the lack of faith shown by the people there.

His own disciples could not cast out a particular demon because of their doubts. And they certainly had more faith than anyone else, as they had seen and performed other miracles first-hand. If even a little doubt could render them impotent, what hope did anyone else have?

Yet, here is a man admitting doubt, and yet, got the miracle he was so desperate to receive. How is that even possible. More to the point, if it was possible for him, why shouldn’t it be possible for me. That was my question then, and is my question for believers today.

The Faith of Thomas

One of the 12 that walked with Jesus, Thomas is my hero. Grant it, I don’t believe Thomas was a real person. But in terms of the story as told, he may be my favorite character in all the bible. Why he was singled out as a doubter, I will never know. The storyteller needed a doubter, and Thomas was it. He was declared the doubter because he requested proof that the risen Jesus was who he said he was. Here’s the thing: The other eleven had been given the proof demanded by Thomas in an earlier meeting. Here’s the passage:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jn. 20:19-20

You will notice that the disciples rejoiced only after they had been convinced by the wounds. Thomas wasn’t with them at the time. When they told him about it, he also insisted on seeing the evidence before being convinced. The story highlights Thomas as a doubter because he held out for the evidence. I’m fine with that. He held out for the evidence. He saw the evidence. And he believed as a result of the evidence.

Even more interesting, Jesus actually gave him the evidence rather than the more typical mercurial answer for which he was known. Not only that, he accepted Thomas’s faith rather than rejecting him as a disciple because of his demand for proof. Of course, Jesus upbraided him for his lack of faith, and made a speech declaring those who believed without evidence were somehow better.

But none of that really matters because the faith of Thomas was apparently sufficient for him to continue as one of Jesus’ 12 representatives. If it was good enough for Thomas, I’ll take it. Except, it seems that option is no longer available. It is either faith without evidence, or nothing.

The Impossible Faith

As I have said many times in other posts about the matter, we do not choose what we believe. We can choose what we want to believe. But when it comes to what we actually believe, we either believe it or we don’t. We can’t skip the builtin mechanisms we have for distinguishing truth from falsehood, muscling past our mental gatekeeper. We can’t short-circuit the pathways to proper belief. Just try as hard as you can to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You simply can’t do it. That is what I call an impossible faith.

What god seems to demand today is an impossible faith. My not believing things that are hard to believe does not make me a bad person. It makes me a properly functioning human. At worst, it makes me Thomas. God does nothing to try and persuade us. He simply demands that we believe. It is a little like demanding that you love someone you never met, and aren’t too sure if that person even exists. Love this person, or die! Believe these propositions sans clarification and proof, or die! It is the mad man who demands that you love him while he holds a gun to your head. I can try to fake it. But I can’t accomplish it. He might as well pull the trigger.

The Price of Grace

I recently wrote a piece called Grace: A Not So Free, Not So Gift. Part of my thesis was that grace is not free because it requires us to do something to reap its benefits. In most formulations, that something is usually faith. It is saved by grace through faith. No faith, no grace. Semantic games cannot change the fact that faith is a payment. The Hebrews writer put it this way:

Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. He. 11:6

There is simply no getting around it. Without faith (to paraphrase the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld), no grace for you! This particular passage highlights two propositions you have to believe. The first is that god exists. It is interesting that the writer of this passage does not automatically assume that everybody knows that god exists, or that there is sufficient evidence for his existence. He lists it as a proposition that one must take on faith. The second is that god rewards those who seek him. I know many Christians who do not believe in heaven, and hold no classical view of eternal reward.

I find the second proposition even more interesting because it seems to be unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Belief in god seems essential enough. But reward? What does it matter if a believer understands the idea of godly rewards? Why not demand belief in the risen Jesus, or blood atonement? Why something as inessential as the belief in reward? This will always be a mystery to me. What I am certain of is that the bible makes faith a prerequisite for receiving the not so free gift of grace.

Conclusion: Help My Disbelief

Christians unquestioningly accept faith as the price of grace. I do not. Why must we believe anything? If you have never asked yourself this, ask now. We don’t actually need faith for any of the laws of physics to work. Gravity, quantum mechanics, and relativity operate as predicted whether or not I understand or believe in them. I don’t have to believe in the benefits of oxygen to draw a breath. Nor do I have to believe that a snake is venomous before it can kill me.

This is true even in interpersonal relationships. If I make the unlikely promise that I will give you a pony, it is not incumbent upon you to believe it. In fact, if you know anything about me, it would show good judgement on your part to completely disbelieve it. The responsibility to deliver your pony is mine, and mine alone. You can disbelieve it all the way up to the point that the pony is in your yard, with all the appropriate papers declaring me the giver and you the owner. My fulfilling my promise does not require your faith.

I have been close enough to death so that I was certain I would die in the hospital, and not live to see another sunrise. I remember closing my eyes having zero faith that I would open them again. Fortunately, my faith was not required, as years later, I’m still here. Many mornings, I wake up a little surprised to have successfully done so.

Faith is meaningless in every practical aspect of our lives. We don’t need faith for a thing to be true, or to receive a gift, or to accomplish the unlikely. One might argue that wishful and positive thinking offers some benefit. But faith is presented as something distinct from hope and positive thinking. While hope may give you some measure of confidence where none is called for, faith will not give you better grades. It will not grow back your thinning hair. It will not keep you from being hit by a drunk driver. It will not add one good day to a bad marriage. It will not keep the repo man from driving off with your car. Faith profits nothing!

But… What if I’m wrong? What if I disbelieve as a result of being born to the wrong family, or in the wrong part of the world? What if I was provided misleading information during my formative years? What if I have a defective gene? What if I am mentally and emotionally incapable of the understanding required for faith? What if any number of things I haven’t even mentioned is keeping me from believing? I am still required to believe in what I clearly cannot.

I have been a seeker, not a finder. I have searched the scriptures multiple times. I have prayed with the fervor of a thousand priest, “I believe! Lord help my disbelief!” Until that prayer is answered, I don’t see the point in any other prayers. What I am left with is what I actually believe and don’t believe. I cannot muscle past the gatekeeper of my better judgement. I will happily take the reward of Thomas based on his evidence-powered faith. I await god’s presentation of the evidence that would persuade me.

David Johnson


Grace- A Not So free, Not So Gift


I listened to a program that featured a Christian and a Mormon debating the concept of grace. The Mormon representative delivered a grace with which I was very familiar, as it exactly mirrored the Church of Christ idea of grace I have known since I was a child. While the debate, itself, wasn’t particularly enlightening, it did get me thinking about the subject.

I am very familiar with the main formulations. I find Calvinism vs. Arminianism debates quite entertaining, and most on point. Listening to people debate Paul vs. James can also be rather enlightening. But the epiphany I had when taking in this particular debate was that I had absolutely no idea what any of it actually meant. The more I study grace, the more nonsensical it seems. I’m not sure how I ever thought I understood it.

Though different groups pour different meanings into the words, everyone seems to agree that grace is a free gift from god to humans. This is the gift of salvation, as without it, everyone would be lost (burn in hell, live eternally without the presence of god, be completely annihilated). Salvation and condemnation are yet more concepts different groups apply different meanings to.

But the more I study grace, it strikes me that it is neither free, nor a gift. And it seldom ends in salvation, whatever that happens to mean. Obviously, I’ve got some unpacking to do:

Free as in Beer

I don’t at all understand the literal imagery of this expression. But I know what it has come to mean. Free as in beer suggests that something is absolutely free with no strings attached. Not only is there no up front payment, there is never any expectations for payment, or even appreciation after the beer is drank. Free as in beer is as free as it gets.

When Christians talk about salvation being a free gift through grace by faith, they seem to have a very different idea of free than I do. Even as a Christian, I always struggled with this one. The formulation I learned is that salvation is the free gift of grace. But you had to receive the gift through certain fulfillment mechanisms.

We were careful not to label those fulfillment mechanisms as works. But we definitely understood that there was something we had to do in order to take possession of the free gift. It is not that we earned the gift in any way. We didn’t. We just had to take possession of the gift. Make no mistake about it: The gift was still free.

Receiving the Gift

One of the quiet scandals of the gameshow: The Price Is Right, is that many winners couldn’t claim their prizes because they couldn’t afford the taxes on those prizes. Yes, the prizes were free. But they still had to pay the California state tax.

A more common example you may have experienced happens when you order something from TV. Often, there is a free gift with your order to incentivize you. When you have a representative on the phone, they tell you that all you have to do to receive the free gift is pay the shipping and handling. Shockingly, that shipping and handling fee is often the real, hidden price of the free gift. No S&H fee, no free gift.

At that point, it becomes a matter of semantics. How much do you have to do before the gift is no longer free? I am reminded of the classic Nigerian scam. Some wealthy royal is escaping from a desperate situation, and needs help moving his substantial cash hoard. He offers to give you a lavish reward if you help. He just needs you to send a small amount of money in U.S. currency for whatever transaction fees he concocts. To receive your free gift, all you have to do is send him a few hundred dollars. What a bargain!

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that there really is a substantial reward at the end of the deal. It still wasn’t free. You had to pay to get it, just like you have to pay the gameshow and the S&H fees. Semantically, the Christian can say that salvation by grace is free. But the loophole is that you have to do something in order to receive it, to claim your prize. You either have to be baptized so you can come in contact with the cleansing blood, or swear fealty to Jesus, your new king and master, or profess belief in propositions you can’t square with the facts. There is always something that you are expected to do to receive your free gift.

It gets even worse, and more confusing…

The Pearl of Great Price

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, hidden in a field, that a person found and hid. Then because of joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he found a pearl of great value, he went out and sold everything he had and bought it. Mt. 13: 44-46

I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand these parables. I can only tell you how I understand them based on study, and how they have been taught over the years. The treasure and the pearl represent the kingdom of god. We are meant to be the person who finds these treasures. To truly possess the treasure, it costs us everything we have. These treasures (gifts) are so valuable, no one could possibly pay the true price. To obtain it, you must give (pay) everything you have.

The interesting thing about the gospels is that Jesus never talks about grace. He tells some to keep the law in order to be saved. To others, he says if they love him, they will keep his commandments. Both he and his predecessor required their followers to repent and be baptized to be saved. In the above passage, salvation costs more than belief, repentance, and confession. It costs everything you have and are. That seems like a pretty high price for a free gift.

The Gift that Keeps on Taking

When a gift is not really free, it’s not really a gift. The moment I make a payment to receive it, it is no longer a gift. It is merchandise. I now have a contract that states that when I perform an action, you have to make delivery of your promise. When I pay shipping and handling, the free gift had better show up. Semantics aside, what we have is a two-way contract, not a free gift.

God’s free gift is even more problematic. We can understand why there has to be some kind of fulfillment clause among humans. If I offer every person in the world a dollar, it is reasonable that I require them to send me an SASE. I’m only one person. There isn’t enough time left in my life to address 7 billion envelopes. As humans, we have limits. God does not.

This is where the charade gets just a little bit transparent. God doesn’t have to require us to pay a state tax, or shipping and handling, or provide a self-addressed stamped envelope. We don’t have to seek him, or decide if he is even real. We don’t have to believe in him or trust him. If he wants to give everyone in the world a free gift, he can just do so without drama or fanfare.

If he wanted everyone to be saved, everyone would be saved. There is no need to jump through fulfillment hoops. He requires artificial fulfillment clauses precisely because he does not want to give his pearl of great price away for free. He does not want to give what is holy to the dogs. He wants us to show that we are worthy of the gift for which we can never be worthy. By definition, god has made certain that his gift is not free.

He has also made certain that his gift is not actually a gift. It is not just that we have to pay something to receive it. We also have to go on paying after we have supposedly received it. I say “supposedly” because there is no verifiable, extrinsic, measurable sign that we have received anything other than a good feeling.

We don’t get any added health benefit, as well still get sick and die from the same diseases as everyone else.The lifespan of the believer is not longer or happier than anyone else’s. Their finances are not any more stable. Their marriages are not any more secure. Their kids are not any smarter or obedient. Their parents suffer from the same geriatric issues. There is simply no received gift that can be externally demonstrated.

The big gift is eternal life. Of course, there is no way to verify that gift without first dying. Once dead, there is no coming back to verify the gift for someone else. Your only gift is something that you cannot verify, and is highly doubtful. And for that gift, you are expected to do an awful lot.

A Life of Sacrifice and Self-denial

Jesus tells his disciples they have to take up their cross and follow him. What kind of gift is it that requires the most loyal to carry an instrument of torture and death for the rest of their natural lives? Paul put it this way:

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted… 2 Tim. 3:10-13

Paul made a point of his many sufferings so that he could pay it off by saying that every godly wannabe has to likewise suffer. Forgive me if I remain unsold on this gift that is starting to look a lot less like a gift. If my salvation has been completely paid for by the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, why am I expected to pay through my self-denial and suffering?

There is an even more troubling aspect of this gift. If this grace thing is really a gift, who is the giver, and who, the receiver?

An Eternity of Obedience, Worship, and Devotion

Jesus says that if we love him, we must keep his commandments. Does this ever stop? Will we always have to be subject to his commands even in heaven? Is there ever a time when we can say, “Nope. I think I’d rather do something else”?

One of my secret fears as a child was that I would go to heaven, get conscripted into the choir, and be stuck singing praise anthems to god for the rest of my eternal life. Is there a time when you can duck out of the song-fest and go shoot pool with some of your buddies? In heaven, can you have any conversation other than about how great god is, and how thankful you are to him for his free gift?

If life on earth is any indication, probably not. Once we have taken possession of our free gift, we are to be in a constant state of thanksgiving, prayer, and remorse for our sinfulness. We are never to trust inner own understanding. We are never to plan to do anything without first acknowledging that we can do nothing if it is not god’s will that we do so.

The advice of Ecclesiastes is that we should fear god and keep his commandments. This is the whole duty of man. Paul says that for him to live is Christ. And for him to die is gain. It seems that the only one getting a measurable benefit from the free gift is god.

He gets willing receptacles for his disembodied spirit. He gets us to give him money instead of the other way around. He gets us to volunteer our lives whenever he needs a sacrificial lamb. And he gets an eternity of worship, praise and sycophantic devotion. Even if we do get eternal life in the bargain, it seems god is getting much more. He is not giving us a gift. He is giving us a bill. And we will be paying it for the rest of our natural lives. Count me out!

Conclusion: Candy from Strangers

Why do believers accept this idea of a gift so uncritically? We look gift horses in the mouth everyday. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. When did we stop believing that? We know about cons and scams. If you believe in cosmic, otherworldly beings, why could there not be cosmic, otherworldly scammers?

The promise of heaven and eternal life in a state of undefined bliss sounds a lot like candy from a stranger. At least then, you get the candy. Religion promises so much more, demonstrates no ability to fulfill it, and requires that you give all that you have to obtain it. Isn’t it reasonable that we ask more information about this god who speaks to us in parables through ancient intermediaries?

As I have already made clear, I don’t understand the grace thing. It is a free gift for which I don’t have to do anything. Yet if I insist on living my own life on my terms, then I don’t qualify for this thing that god so desperately wants me to have. No, I don’t understand it at all. I don’t see how it’s free. And I don’t see how it’s a gift. But even if I did, I don’t believe it!

I don’t believe there is a reward waiting somewhere in outer space for those who live their lives in a particular way. I don’t believe that there is anything beyond the grave. I don’t believe there is a hell from which to be saved. If there is such a hell, I do not believe that the human sacrifice of an ancient, Middle-Eastern man can do anything to help me avoid it.

I don’t believe any of it. There is simply not sufficient evidence for me to do so. It is not that I haven’t tried. But if there is a god who represents a universe where all of these things are true, he knows exactly how to reach me. He knows the kind of evidence that would convince me. If he was interested in saving me, he would not try to do so by the equivalent of offering candy from a stranger.

He intentionally and consistently avoids allowing me to see any evidence that I would find persuasive. He will not do for me what he has supposedly done for so many others. He will not appear to me. He will not talk to me. He will not even give me a hallucination. He will not give me an argument that I can’t easily defeat. He will not give me an unmistakable sign, or even a feeling.

Contrary to the song I sang for so long, his grace most certainly does not reach me. And I suppose that is a good thing. Because like the prizes on the Price Is Right, I couldn’t afford it anyway.

David Johnson

The Search for Meaning

Does your life have meaning? I don’t mean to pry. I am just trying to get you to think a little deeper about a thing that causes amateur philosophers and theologians to lose sleep at night. Christians seem to be convinced that all atheists are depressed nihilists constantly wallowing in the mire of meaninglessness, daily flipping a coin between life and suicide. Most uncharitably, Christians are often heard asking the question of atheists, “If there is no god and no meaning to life, why don’t you just kill yourself?” Indeed, that is a question that reveals more about the asker than the asked.

At the root of that question is the assumption that for life to have any value at all, it must have extrinsic, atemporal meaning. Sorry about the big words. But this is a big concept that needs to be unpacked. For the meaning seekers, it is not enough that life is intrinsically meaningful. For them, life must be validated by something outside of itself. Life is not meaningful in and of itself. Rather, it is given meaning by outside forces.

It is also clear that time cannot play a part in determining life’s extrinsic meaning because that would imply a self-contained meaning. Therefore, the meaning of life has to be divorced from the fact that life, as we currently know it, is temporary. If the meaning of life were tied to the temporary nature of life, then the meaning of life, itself, would be temporary. For the meaning seekers, that is unsatisfactory.

But I contend that the typical Christian view of meaning, and indeed, the search for meaning, is itself, meaningless. It is internally contradictory and logically unstable. In addition to exposing the flaws in the search for meaning, I will positively defend the claim that while life is ultimately meaningless, it is extremely valuable. And that value is, in and of itself, the highest form of meaning. Let’s dig in:

No Such Thing as Meaning

The main reason I don’t believe life has any extrinsic, atemporal meaning is that there is no such thing as meaning. It is a metaphysical construct imbuing the recipient with value beyond what is intrinsically and apparently there. Meaning also conveys a sense of purpose that makes a thing more vital and indispensable than it otherwise would be.

It is easy to see the obvious, evolutionary advantage to a species that is convinced of its own meaningfulness, above and beyond that which is available to anything else in the universe. Notice that Christians are not concerned with the extrinsic, atemporal meaning of other animals, stars, black holes, vacuum energy. These things have a certain value. But only human life has “real” meaning. There is a certain bias that places one’s self in the center of the universe, around which, everything revolves.

But none of that obscures the truth that meaning is nothing more than a useful, evolutionary construct. Quite apart from the meaning we decide we have, the very idea of meaning is a vestigial remnant of our lizard brain that justified our position as the center of the universe, nothing more.

Center of the Universe

There is a kernel of solipsism in everyone. We can’t help it. From our perspective, each of us, individually, is the center of the universe. What happened the day before you were born? From your perspective, nothing. The world created itself the moment you opened your eyes to see it. What happens the day after you die? Nothing. The world ends when you are no longer here to observe it. The only part of time you can experience is the part you occupy.

What is the world? The world is as it looks and sounds and smells and tastes as it does to you. Your perception of the world is the only truth of the world that matters. Because that is the only truth of the world you can access. That is why others who hear the voice of god are crazy, while you are perfectly sane, and genuinely hearing god’s voice in your head. The reason the possibility of mental illness applies to them but not you, is that it is your world. Your experience of the world is the only truth you can directly access. Because you are the center of your universe, if your perceptions are not reliable, then the world is unreliable.

To keep from admitting our solipsism, we manufacture a sense of meaning which tells us we’re special. If our lives have meaning, then surely, the universe will not allow our senses to fool us. The real reason our perception of the world is truest is that we are special. And while all human life has meaning, some lives have even more meaning.


The bible records Jesus as saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Individually, every Christian believes that they are one of the chosen few: not just called, but chosen. This is a very powerful idea. It means that their extrinsic source of meaning has particularly marked them in a way not available to most others. When a lone survivor climbs from the wreckage of a plane, they are often convinced that they have been spared for a purpose.

Given that the other 399 passengers died a horrible death, how could the survivor not think her life was overflowing with meaning and purpose? Of course, the universal life-force has chosen her for something special. Why else would she have walked away without a scratch? How could anyone ever explain such a thing naturalistically? We all are aware that meaningless coincidence happens to everyone else all the time. But because our universe is the “real” one, and the only one we can access, we have a hard time recognizing meaningless events when they happen to us. Our experience of the world tells us that everything that we experience is highly meaningful, if only because we were chosen to experience it.

The Source of Meaning

For Christians, it is an open and closed case: Meaning comes from god. Value is assigned by humans. That is why we don’t debate the value of life. We are concerned with the meaning of life. What are we worth, is a fundamentally different question than, why are we here. The former is a “what” question. The latter is a “why” question. Theologians and philosophers eschew the known whats to major in the unknown whys.

The reason Christians look to god for meaning is that nothing else in the universe provides it. As far as the rest of the universe is concerned, humans are target practice. The universe is mostly out to kill us. As far as purpose is concerned, the universe does not need us. Even our planet does not need us. There is no symbiosis. The planet was doing just fine before we arrived. To the extent that the planet is sick, it is because of us, not in spite of us. If the planet had a say in the matter, it would probably be very happy to see the last of us go away. We don’t need to save the planet. We need to leave it alone.

If we want to find meaning, we have to look beyond the universe. If life were intrinsically meaningful, then it would have no more meaning than that which nature assigns it. And nature has assigned it no meaning whatsoever. Nature destroys as readily as it births. Nature is completely indifferent to life. But god creates life. God loves life. God is life: the ground of all being. If life has any meaning at all, it has to come from god. No other source elevates life beyond mere value.

The Problem with Extrinsic Meaning

Let’s say you have a seashell prominently displayed in your home. That shell has meaning to you because you and your spouse to be, bumped heads reaching for it at the same time. But what is that shell’s meaning when you later discover that the original shell was lost in a move. And the one you are displaying is just some seashell your kids picked up on one of their school field trips. The meaning you once invested in that shell no longer applies. You were never concerned about the intrinsic value of the shell (likely, next to nothing). You were only concerned about the meaning you poured into it.

That is precisely the problem with drawing one’s meaning from an outside source. You are only as meaningful as that source finds you to be at that particular moment. If you stop pleasing the source that gives you meaning, then you are no longer meaningful. When your source of meaning is as capricious as the god of the bible, then your meaning will always be in doubt.

At first glance, god is no more concerned about human life than nature. The second glance looks no better. The god of the bible destroyed human life by the millions. The Christian scriptures promise that he will do so by the billions once the gates of Hell are opened for business. This wholesale destruction is not just reserved for the atheist. It is also a reality for many believers who have devoted their lives to his work. The god from which you draw meaning can render you meaningless in a blink.

The Eternity Paradox

It is a lot easier to assign meaning to things that are temporary. Consider the meaning of the universe. It has been here for approaching 14 billion years. Had it burst into existence, quickly formed our planet, gave birth to humans, then changed modes to sustain and nurture our kind of life, one might be tempted to say that the purpose of the universe was to bring us into being. This would be a pretty easy call had those things happened within, say… six days.

Instead, what we have is a universe that has been doing more or less the same thing for about 14 billion years. It was around for about 9 and a half billion years before it got around to making our sun. From there, our ascension seems to be more luck than design. The universe has not stopped to notice our existence. It has not molded itself into a more friendly environment for our kind of life. It has deposited us on a planet, most of which is completely inaccessible to us. Of the parts we can access, most is hostile to our kind of life.

Not only did the universe not change modes, it does not seem to be going out of its way to make more like us. It is doing what it does like a mindless machine that continues to run until the batteries die, or the parts break down. As near as we can observe, the universe is a meaningless machine that is mindlessly expanding towards heat death. Its extreme longevity destroys the illusion that it has any meaning whatsoever.

Multiply that times infinity, and you will get the Christian’s expectation of what their lives will be in Heaven. If the meaning of this life is to fear god and keep his commandments (as the bible suggests), then what is our meaning after we have done that? Do we have to keep doing that forever without end in order to have meaning? What happens in Heaven after singing “Amazing Grace” for the first ten million years? Is it okay if we stop and maybe do something else? What happens when we’ve done that, and the next thing, and the next thing? Where is the meaning in that?

An episode of Star Trek Voyager explored this paradox. The Q Continuum was a race of beings that were eternal. They had been everything and done everywhere. At some point, there was simply nothing left for them to do. The only thing they hadn’t tried was dying. Every version of Heaven I have ever encountered is the ultimate definition of meaningless existence. Unlike the universe, it will never wind down. The parts will never corrode. The eternal life that Christians seek is the ultimate insult to meaning.

Life Without Meaning

One of the greatest existential crisis for the Christian is the contemplation of a life without meaning. They believe that you must either have extrinsic meaning provided by god, or commit suicide. They can see no other possibility. Bypassing all other problems with this way of thinking, I will focus on this one glaring fact: It is the Christian who is most often desperately searching for some sort of meaning for their lives. In general, the atheist couldn’t care less.

For centuries, believers have been trying to figure out what their calling is. They are convinced that all the chosen have a particular calling. But god has never been especially clear or helpful when it comes to letting the chosen know exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing. At this very moment, many Christians are ringing their hands over whether to go into the mission field, or pursue a promotion at work. Is the calling to be a good wife and mother, or a teacher of the word in Uruguay.

At this very moment, a million Christians are straining to hear the call just a little more clearly, to know what they should do next, and understand their place in the world. They accept god as the source of meaning because they believe it will be the answer to one of the perennial, existential questions. Instead, they just find that it opens the door to even more questions that no one can answer for them.

I contend that this desperate search for meaning is what opens so many believers up to abuse from fake representatives of a non-existent god. Surely, an existing god would not allow himself to be represented by fakes. But people lose their fortunes and families chasing the advice of people who claim to be shepherds of god’s flock. They set themselves up as the interpreters of life’s meaning. Believers would rather grasp at false meaning than accept the possibility that there is no meaning at all. For them, a life without meaning is a bridge too far.

I contend that this is an emotionally immature way to look at life. It is a lot like objective morality. With morality, we think it is too big a task for us to decide right and wrong for ourselves. We are convinced that we are not worthy to make such judgements. We need something bigger than humanity to sort it out for us so that everything works out to be equitable in the end. That is a very childlike idea. Children look to adults to set the rules because the adults know what they’re doing. And the adults will see to it that everyone plays by the rules. Carrying that idea into adulthood is emotional immaturity.

In the same manner, these same people believe that human life must have some ultimate meaning that is too big for humans to determine. We are not worthy to determine our own meaning for ourselves. We would just muck things up. Therefore, we look to the heavenly adult to sort it out for us, and tell us what our purpose is. Christians want to come to Jesus as little children because they can’t be trusted to make the big decisions. They will wait for the big guy to give them a sense of direction. There is a better way.

The Value Proposition

First, let me answer the question on the minds of so many believers: How can life be worth living without meaning? For the answer, just tune your TV to the Animal Planet. There you will see animals of every stripe living out their lives with zest and vitality, and nary a thought for the meaning of it all.

How does the universe go on without meaning? It has managed to do just that for upwards of 14 billion years. And every indication is that is only the beginning. The real question is, why is it that certain humans seem to be the only entities in the universe that require a sense of meaning as a prerequisite for enjoying a full and worthwhile life.

As I stated earlier in this post, meaning requires outside help from the supernatural. Value requires nothing more than human judgement. A life without supernaturally endowed meaning still has value. Moreover, that value is not the result of an outsider’s opinion. Every human value’s their own life. And their life has exactly the amount of value they place on it. When a human decides that her life has no more value, she ends it. No other human’s sense of her value can trump that of her own.

My cat’s life most assuredly has no meaning. She is fifteen years old. She sometimes occupies the toilet, and dares me to move her. She claws at my leg demanding to be petted. She screams her demands when I am trying to concentrate on work. She is insufferably annoying more often than not.

She has lost a step. She doesn’t heal as quickly. And she is antisocial to the point of being rude. She can’t possibly have many years to go. Yet she attacks life each day, and clearly values every moment of it. She hangs onto it tenaciously with an iron will. I value my cat. But she values herself much more.

For the most part, we all value our lives quite highly. There is an evolutionary advantage to valuing all life highly. In that way, everyone will also value your life. We have collectively decided that human life is worth something in the same way we decided that diamonds are worth something. Neither life, nor diamonds, nor vintage trading cards have any intrinsic value. They are worth only what we say they are worth. That does not mean they are worth nothing to us, and that we don’t value them very highly. We do.

Conclusion: A Life Worth Living

One of the differences between Christians and atheists is how we perceive a life worth living. As a non-theist, my life is worth living despite the occasional hardships. I try to consciously make a contribution to the world in an attempt to leave it in better shape than I found it. As for touching other lives, I believe that mine has been a net positive.

At this particular time in my life, I am as happy as I have every been. I am paid for doing what I love. And I love the people I am with. My cat sees me as a means to an end. But my dog seems to genuinely like me. And you can’t ask for much more than that. Financially, there is always room for improvement. But I have spent most of may life in worse condition than I’m in right now. My health could be better. But I still average three to five miles walking everyday.

I realize there is not a single thing I can do to make the universe notice my existence. I am simply too small and insignificant to matter to anyone except the few who are in my social graph. With my many accomplishments, Alpha Centauri remains unimpressed.I do not need the universe to notice me, or to live forever for my life to have been worth living in the space and time that I have it. Neither does anyone else.

The fact is, moving from belief to unbelief does not diminish a person’s perceived value one iota. In my experience, life’s value is greatly increased. The infinite is meaningless. It is scarcity that gives life its flavor. I am one of a kind. And I have fewer years in front of me than behind me. I can assure you, the universe can produce nothing more valuable than the life I have yet to live, except, maybe, your life.

David Johnson

An Undifferentiated Life


In my spare time over the past few months, I have been working on a project called, “Atheist Apologetics”. I happen to believe that Christians do not have a copyright to epistemological guideposts that clarify their position. Non-theists have not been as rigorous in codifying the rules explaining why they believe what they believe. Our arguments have been more scattered and less formal. We also have no pithy names like the Kalam-Cosmological Argument, or the Anthropic Principle to make them easy to remember and repeat.

I have been putting together a list of ten such apologetics, but without the pithy names. I have been stuck on #10 for a while. My challenge has been deciding on what the last one should be. Ten doesn’t begin to cover it. But I wanted to keep it manageable and essential. What are the ten most essential ideas? The first nine were easy. Figuring out how to end such a list is hard. I have rejected every idea I’ve come up with as it feels too much is being left unsaid.

As of 4:30 AM, Sunday, the 23 of August, 2015, It struck me that the tenth apologetic is really the first and only apologetic that matters. It has been the theme of my practicalism for these many years. It rings so true and obvious, even Christians have their own version of it. The apologetic goes something like this:

An undifferentiated life puts the lie to all supernatural claims.

The Universal Need for Evidence

Let’s start with this very basic principle: Everyone needs evidence. As humans, we don’t believe anything without some type of evidence to back it up. Pretending that evidence is unimportant is the worst and most unsustainable kind of lie anyone can tell.

No believer has faith without sight. None! If that were the case, they would have no apologetics. There would be no need. Their only defense would be that they believe it. That would be enough for them. But it is not enough for Christians to believe. They also want others to believe, or at the very least, believe that they are not crazy for believing. To do that, they have to offer some type of proof that what they believe is true. They have to offer some type of evidence.

Even the least evangelical Christian thinks they have good reason to believe. They have evidence enough for them. Most often, that evidence is some kind of personal experience. That experience could be anything from a sense of peace, forgiveness and acceptance by god after praying a sinner’s prayer, to being convinced that they have had an encounter with the supernatural. One way or the other, they have their evidence. Their faith is not without sight.

The more ambitious believer tries to provide evidence for their beliefs via science and philosophy. They believe there is empirical and logic evidence bolstering their belief. That is where apologetics lives. Internal evidence is not enough for them. They seek to provide the hard evidence of science and history. They believe that the empirical facts are on their side. Beyond apologetics, there is a type of evidence that all Christians support:

The Evidence of a Differentiated Life

There are a number of predictions that Christianity makes. Believers have ready-made excuses for when those predictions fail to pan out. But there is one prediction that remains an embarrassment to believers, as they cannot deny it. But they don’t have a good excuse for why it is not apparent. Christianity predicts that believers should have differentiated lives from unbelievers.

There are a number of bible passages I could quote to make the point. But this line from a popular song should suffice:

And you’ll know they are Christians by their love, by their love. Yes, you’ll know they are Christians by their love.

Christianity predicts that there will be some visible difference in the lives of Christians. Jesus predicts that his lordship would be known by the way Christians treated one another. Paul gave us a list of expectations of a life filled with the Spirit. He called them the Fruits of the Spirit, and differentiated them from the works of the flesh. As a refresher, here are the two lists:

The Fruits of the Spirit

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-control

The Works of the Flesh

  • Idolatry
  • Sorcery
  • Enmity
  • Strife
  • Jealousies
  • Wrath
  • Factions
  • Divisions
  • Parties
  • Envying
  • Drunkenness
  • Revellings

I don’t think these lists require any commentary. So I will confine it to one observation: The first list is just as common in the lives of atheists as the second list is in the lives of Christians. Neither has a firm claim on either list of attributes.

I can fill the rest of this post with the names of prominent Christians, many of which I know personally, who are predominantly second listers. I could fill another post with the names of first-list non-theists. The embarrassing fact from which Christians cannot hide is that in no way are their lives differentiated from those of non-believers. A random selection of Christians and a random selection of atheists will surface no evidence of a differentiated life. None!

A Miracle-Filled Life

A miracle is the ultimate differentiator. Any life characterized by the miraculous should be easily distinguished from the life dominated by the mundane. Even Christians who do not believe in certain kinds of flamboyant miracles, believe in the power of prayer, itself, one of the highest forms of miracle.

The life of a person who prays should look different from the life of a person who doesn’t. As a person who has been both, I can attest to having experienced no difference between the two states. I have been what most would call a praying man. I prayed multiple times a day for the majority of my life. Prayer was such an ingrained reflex, I continued to do it even after I no longer believed. It took quite a while before I could get it out of my system.

Once I did stop, the only change in my life was that I had an abundance of mental energy that I needed to fill with something else besides prayer. I have been a much more productive person since then. Yet I have experience no lack of the things for which I used to pray.

But I am a sample size of one. I can observe thousands, and read about millions. Neither observation nor careful research has surfaced any evidence that those who pray are healthier, smarter, more productive, wealthier, happier, safer, or anything else their prayers predict if answered.

The children of preachers, elders, and deacons are just as likely to be gay, drug addicts, parents out of wedlock, and suicidal as anyone else. The marriages of Christians are just as likely to end in divorce. This, despite the many prayers for the perfect mate, and god’s blessing on those marriages.

The Christian man and woman are just as likely to be unfaithful to their spouse as the unbeliever, despite prayers to be delivered from temptation. As many Christians die in plane crashes and car accidents as non-Christians. As many Christians die from injury and disease, as the records of Christian hospitals can attest. This, in spite of the fact that they have chapels and priests, and random prayer warriors wandering from room to room, praying for healing that never comes.

There is even less evidence in the lives of those Christians who believe in the more flamboyant miracles. It is simply impossible to square the need for wheelchair ramps and accessible bathrooms in churches that practice miraculous healings. At such a church, no faithful believer should ever die of cancer, or be blind, or anything else that makes a mockery of a faith that says such things are easily banished.

At the end of the day, an argument for the existence of such miracles should be characterized by the presence of such miracles. Otherwise, it is just an empty claim worthy neither of defense nor debate.

Conclusion: Living Like an Atheist

When I was a kid, I didn’t know any atheists. Sure, I knew people who didn’t go to church. But they were not unbelievers, just unfaithful. An atheist was a different animal entirely. My child-like concept of an atheist was indistinguishable from my concept of a Satanist. It was all very dark and occult. I couldn’t imagine how they lived their day-to-day lives. Now that I am an atheist, I know that even then, I was living the life of an atheist without knowing it. So, too, was everyone I knew.

As it turns out, the life of the believer is 99.9% the same as the life of an atheist. The only difference is in the assignment of agency. Take away the jargon, and one will be able to spot no differences in the lives of the Christian and the atheist. Christians talk like believers, but live like Atheist.

Christians pray for food that will nourish and strengthen them. Yet they pay for it with the same, cold, hard cash as everyone else, and suffer the same dyspepsia. They could have just paid for their food, and suffered the same bloat and ill-health without the superfluous prayer. Their dietary life is no different than mine. Whole Foods requires the same whole paycheck from them as it does for me. Their god doesn’t even give them a miraculous discount. From shopping to digestion, prayer changes nothing for the believer.

In addition to eating like atheists, they work like atheists. They have to graduate from high school, then college, just like anyone else. Then, despite their prayers, they have to clean up, put on business attire, and try to impress an interviewer, as they are the ones with the power to hire.

Once they get the job, they have to fight the morning commute, wait in line at the Starbucks, and clock in on time right behind the atheist who is doing the same. Once there, they have to perform their duties to the satisfaction of the supervisor. Only then do they get to go home tired, and make the same complaints about their job as the atheist next door.

Also, they live their financial lives like atheists. Regardless of rhetoric, they place exactly the same value on money as does the atheist. They try to acquire just as much, save just as much, spend just as much, buy just as nice of a house, car, boat, vacation, clothes as the hedonistic atheist. When it comes right down to it, Christians are not even more charitable with their money than atheists, giving and hoarding about the same amounts.

Christians live their health lives like atheists. They are no less obese, diabetic, handicapped, or cancerous as anyone else. They have the same struggles to stick to a healthy diet or exercise regimen. When they get sick, their many prayers do not hinder them from seeing a doctor just as often, and downing as many prescription meds as the unbeliever suffering from the same maladies.

I could go on in this way for a long time. But I believe the point is made. Talking like a Christian, but living like an atheist is indistinguishable from just living like an atheist. Qualitatively and quantitatively, the life of the Christian is completely undifferentiated from the life of the atheist.

There is zero value in beliefe that bears no practical fruit. Therefore, believers must be getting something from their belief. I have some thoughts on what that is. But that will have to be the subject of another post.

David Johnson

Why Did Luke Write Luke?


I was talking to a friend of mine this morning about the authorship of Luke. That is not exactly precise. You see, I don’t really care about the authorship of Luke, or when it was written, or to whom it was written. What I asked was why did Luke write the gospel according to Luke in the first place. His completely theological answer missed the point of the question. It wasn’t his fault. The question I’m getting at is a lot harder to ask than it seems on the surface.

This is not a theological question, but a practical one. We don’t have to look deeply for the answer. It is right there in the first four verses of the book. It sits as a self-conscious introduction to the book, written by the author. It is very rare for a biblical work to start off with the author saying, this is what I’m writing, why I’m writing it, and how it should be used. Yet that is exactly how Luke starts. Let’s take a look:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. Lk 1:1-4

A notable absence in this introduction is any self-identification. He introduces the writing, but not himself. This implies the book of Luke is little more than a personal letter, not a work of record by a historian writing for all time and people. He assumes that whomever he is writing to, knows him sufficiently so that there is no need for an introduction. He never identifies himself as Luke, or as a companion of Paul and other apostles, or as one who traveled with Paul, or as anyone with special access to information.

Additionally, he does not characterize his motivation as anything other than his own. Contrary to what many have suggested, it does not imply that he was commissioned to write this account by Theophilus. It clearly says that he took it upon himself to write it. He also did not suggest that he was, in any way, prompted by god to take up the pen. He was not miraculously inspired to write it, at least, not that he knew of.

He seems to be acknowledging that he was not an eyewitness. Furthermore, he claims no special access to eyewitnesses. Other translations make that point unclear. What comes through in all translations is that he is taking on the role of an investigative reporter looking at events much talked about, but that happened at least a generation ago, perhaps more. He is also not claiming to be the first to write this type of account. His first words acknowledge the many that have come before him, doing the very same thing.

With such an introduction, one wonders why he bothered. It begs a few questions that deserve a closer look:

What did Luke think he could add?

Let me put the question a little differently. What do you think you can add? Let’s say you are a scholar of antiquities. You have learned a lot about Jesus studies, and have insights that are not found in the gospels. Do you feel worthy to write a fifth gospel? We already have the four, blessed by the Holy Spirit and the Church. How useful could your contribution be?

Luke was not writing in a vacuum. He was quite familiar with many such writings by others. Most scholars seem to agree that he likely had Mark and Matthew in front of him at the time he decided to write his own version. For the sake of argument, let’s just say he only had Mark: a pretty sure proposition. Who reads the book of Mark and decides that it is missing something? Apparently, Luke. Even more interesting are the elements he thought were missing:

An orderly account

After reading through several sources on this point, I must admit to being unclear about what it means. Looking at all other sources, including Mark’s. Luke feels it it necessary to write an “orderly” account of the Jesus story. There is no explanation of what that means. I found no agreement on what that means. The closest thing to agreement I found was the consensus that it did not refer to chronological order: something the book of Luke most certainly does not exhibit.

I found one suggestion that it referred to a thematic order. But that made no sense to me, as all the gospels are in a thematic order. It just depends on the theme the writer was interested in conveying. Luke certainly had his own set of themes he wanted to convey. But that does not mean all other accounts were disorderly. Whatever he meant, we know that he looked at the other sources, and found them wanting of the order he envisioned. As far as Luke was concerned, the other two synoptics were not orderly.

A persuasive account

The second stated goal Luke gave for taking on the project was to create an account for the reader that would know the certainty of the things he/they had been taught. This line tells us something about the audience for which this was written. They were not first-generation believers who experienced the power of god firsthand.

They were much like us, today. Perhaps they believed based on a smooth-talking evangelist. It is inconceivable that they had seen any miracles. This conjecture is based on the fact that their faith was flagging. They needed to be reassured, just like people today who have also never seen any convincing evidence. Perhaps Luke was the leader of a church community that was starting to drift away. All we know for sure is that he was convinced that their faith needed to be rekindled. They needed to be reminded of the truth of what they had been taught.

Observe that he didn’t rekindle their faith by performing convincing miracles in their presence, or sending an apostle: one of his supposed friends, to give them a firsthand account. He needed to write a whole new gospel account of the life of Jesus. In Luke’s mind, this was the best way to bolster flagging faith. It is curious that in a time when many first-generation disciples and miracle workers were around, and available to Luke, his goto method of faith building was to turn reporter and write a book.

Even more interesting is the fact that Luke did not feel that the current books on offer, Mark’s included, were sufficient to know the certainty of the things they had been taught. For that, a whole new book had to be written. Otherwise, Luke could have simply forwarded a copy of Mark and Matthew to his audience so that they could have an orderly and convincing account. He apparently did not feel those accounts were orderly or persuasive.

An authoritative account

While this was not stated explicitly in the text, implied is the idea that Luke did not altogether respect the authority of the other sources. He felt perfectly comfortable with changing the order and details of the accounts, and adding his own spin. Today, the word for that is “heresy”. He freely added and took away from Mark and Matthew’s gospel stories. He did not bother to cite or identify any of his sources. He just took what he wanted, changed what he needed to, and called it a day. Such is the stuff of sacred text.

What Luke did not do is treat the existing sources as though they were authoritative on the life and ministry of Jesus. He did not think he was dealing with parts of the inspired and divine word of god. He certainly didn’t fancy himself writing scripture. These were just documents about a subject in which he was interested. He created his own document on the subject that he thought was even better, more authoritative. I wonder what John must have thought about Luke’s work when he took up the pen.

An accurate account

Also implicit is the fact that Luke did not think the existing accounts were entirely accurate. While he didn’t say as much, he made some major changes to events. In Luke’s world, there was no sermon on the mount. It took place on a plane. Unlike Mark, Luke gave Jesus a birth narrative. But made the details quite different from Matthew’s narrative. They are not the same, and cannot be harmonized. This is true of many stories and events shared by the authors. Luke saw himself as fixing the story that others had broken.


You are welcome to come to your own conclusion. Here’s mine: Luke did not find the existing sources orderly, persuasive, authoritative, or accurate. These sources likely included two of the books we call gospels. For what it’s worth, I completely agree with him. I would only add that I find his account no more orderly, persuasive, authoritative, or accurate than the others upon which he tried to improve. So much for the gospels.

I’m Starting a New Blog and Giving Away My New Book

Since the very first post, I have been intending to turn the best of this blog into a book. 150 posts later, I think I have enough material. While my goal is still the same, the shape up the project has altered in subtile, but significant ways.

First, I am not simply going to reprint what I have already posted here. Although, I do think that would make for some interesting reading. But I realized that I wanted something more than just an interesting read. I wanted to answer some questions. Truthfully, as the project progressed, I realized that there was only one question that I wanted to address. I wanted my religious friends and family to understand why I abandoned religion and became a non-theist.

I also wanted my friends to understand that it is not them; it’s me. I am not rejecting them. I am rejecting a way of thinking that contradicts how I understand the world to operate. I did not decide to disbelieve. I simply decided to acknowledge it. When I was a kid, I wanted to believe in Santa Clause, but never did. At some point, I acknowledged my disbelief and moved on with my life. I also wanted to believe I could fly without wings or a jetpack. I been on many rooftops, but never took that leap of faith, as I didn’t believe such flight was possible.

I spent most of a lifetime trying to believe in God, and often succeeding to the extent that I could. There is nothing that I wanted to believe more. There is nothing I tried harder to believe. I beat my mind into submission as best I could. I studied my religion and practiced it rigorously. I was a Pharisee of Pharisees.

I am now the staunchest of unbelievers. How did I get from there to here? What killed my god? That is the question that I want to address. When I was a believer, I couldn’t understand how a person could not believe in god. Anyone professing disbelief was just rebelling against the god they knew existed so they could freely indulge in a life of sin. I understand the people who now feel that way about me. They’re wrong just as I was. But I do understand it.

I want them to understand that there are other ways, besides dishonest rebellion, that a person can come to disbelieve in god. For me, it was unanswered questions. I spent a lifetime seeking answers to questions that good Christians didn’t want to address. They dismissed such questions as foolish, and to be avoided. When the questions were addressed, it was a desperate attempt to dismiss the question, not an honest investigation of the issue.

At some point, my pile of questions grew much larger than my pile of answers. The search for answers consumed me, and ultimately ended up killing god one question at a time. That is what this blog project has been for me. It is a way of compiling those god-killing questions into a format that is easy to read and understand.

My book is called, “Killing God, One Question at a Time”. It is not about making atheists, but the making of one particular atheist. It is about how my god was killed by these questions. Yours might survive them just fine.

I don’t just want you to understand me. I want you to understand others like me who have taken similar journeys. We are not lying about our disbelief so that we can live that life of sin we always wanted. We are living our lives with intellectual and emotional integrity. Like you, we want to believe anything that is true, and disbelieve everything that is not.

This book contains some of the questions that make atheists out of devout believers. Ignoring or being dismissive of these questions just makes more atheists. If you are a believer, you owe it to yourself to try and understand why others are not. While this work might provide ammunition for the evangelistic atheist, I really wrote it for the believer.

If Christians want to stop the bleeding from their ranks, they have to address these, and other god-killing questions. I want these questions to be addressed. I want the god debate to center around the issues that really matter. That is why I will be making the book available for free through the new blog. It will be all about the questions that kill faith. The blog and book will share the same name, “Killing God One Question at a Time”.

In addition to blogging the book, I will make it available on iBooks and Kindle for 99¢. There are ten questions in the free version. The ones purchased will get free updates that include the next ten questions as I write them. The final draft is done. But there is still a process to be completed for publication. Expect the new website any day. I will post a link to it once it is ready for visitors. I hope you will stop by.

David Johnson




The word is far worse than a simple pejorative. Where I come from, it is practically hate speech. In fact, it is less an insult and more an accusation for which there is no defense, and the penalty is worse than death. To avoid this social penalty, many hide behind the label of agnostic. An agnostic is an atheist who is afraid to admit it. Such a person claims to be open to all possibilities, but lives like the atheist he really is. Such a path is not for me.

That said, I still do not self identify as an atheist. The word is too emotionally charged. It would be like walking around saying you are a racist, or worst yet, a sex offender. It would be better if I were to identify as a draft dodging, flag burning communist than to say that I am an atheist. But in point of fact, that is exactly what I am.

I am completely non-theistic. I do not leave any room for doubt that there is, or even could be a supernatural God being as portrayed in the bible. To pretend that such a possibility is equally as valid as say, string theory, is absolutely absurd and disingenuous. Mine is not just a rejection of the god of the bible, but of the underlying worldview that presupposes such a construct.

In the Deep South, this makes me more than a minority; it makes me a villain. In the Christian story, the villain is the devil. The bible labels those a fool who say there is no god. That makes me both a demon and a fool. Where I live, it is hard to become more marginalized than that. In the South, the only thing worse than an atheist is a murderer, and that is not a universal sentiment. Had I come out as gay, or impregnated countless young ladies, or become addicted to drugs, my mother would still be able to hold on to the idea that at least I still believed in God. A drug-addicted, gay, promiscuous Christian is far better than a clean, straight, monogamous atheist.

One of the worst things about rushing ahead of the pack is that you find yourself alone, abandoned by the ones you once ran with. As the saying goes, “One step ahead, and you’re a leader. Two steps ahead, and you’re a martyr. Going full atheist in a world of hardcore believers is most definitely two steps ahead.


There are two sides of being an outcast. The most obvious is how you are viewed by others. The second is how you start to view others. In both cases, your former in-group is now the others. As much as they change the image they had of you, you change the image you had of them. It is simply not possible for things to remain as they were. You might, as I was, be inclined to pretend that nothing had changed. But that illusion cannot last for very long.

Try to imagine that you were once a part of the Flat Earth society. You grew up in it. All your friends, family, and associates are still a part of it. But for some turn of luck you cannot fully explain, you discovered the round-earth truth. What of your relationships with all the people you once knew? Not only do you know the truth, it is obvious to you. More than that, any notion of flat earth is borderline insane to you. Suddenly, everyone you know is like a small child in their understanding of the world. Not only are they like children, they are like dull, slow children.

You might even try to help them to see the truth of things by sharing the science of round earth with them. They meet your evidence with derision and scorn. Those round-earth scientists are brainwashed, are lying, are a part of the anti-flat earth conspiracy, are afraid to speak out from fear of being ostracized within the scientific community. The only real scientists are the tiny fraction of scientists that promote the flat-earth view of the world. Those are the enlightened scientists. Why history is filled with great men of science who believed in flat-earth. After such hopeless discussions, it it difficult to say whether they pity you more than you pity them.

Once you see flat-earthism for the utterly bankrupt and laughably stupid idea it really is in light of current data, you can’t help but to consider those who hang on to the notion as laughably stupid as well. How could you not? They are either ignorant by choice, or ignorant because they really can’t do any better. Either way, their ignorance places them in a category of people whose judgements and insights are not to be trusted. Although they are competent in many areas, they are incapable of understanding fundamental truths about how the world works.

Overnight, those good people that made up your entire community and who helped to shape your worldview, are now as looney as toons. They are mere caricatures of what you once thought they were. If you are going to preach the round-earth truth and marginalize the flat-earth doctrine and the apologists who espouse it, then you are in the unenviable position of marginalizing everyone you once held dear. You may still hold them dear. But you have no choice but to undermine their influence, lest they raise up yet another generation of flat-earthers who will be unable to process the truth. Like it or not, your former community is now the others.

New mentors

Mine is a generation without heroes. What the History channel hasn’t ruined for us, the internet has. We know their secrets. We have seen the men and women behind the curtain. Because of what we know, we now look down on the people we once looked up to. The truth is there for all to see. They are no better than us. There is no reason to believe that their answers are any better than ours.

Now that I see the worldview of my mentors as bat-guano crazy, I can’t exactly go to them for advice about anything that matters. Suppose I was having a problem with my marriage. It is hardly worthwhile to go to someone who is likely to suggest that the first step I should take is to rededicate my life and marriage to god. That answer would not only be useless, but offensive. They just as well tell me to rededicate my marriage to Diana: goddess of love, pray twice a day to Zeus, and pay a small tribute to Loki once a month.

No matter what I asked such a person, and regardless of her answer, there would come the moment in the conversation when they would feel compelled to offer up a prayer on my behalf. Since praying is not fundamentally different than faith healing or a Voodoo incantation, it would just ruin the whole encounter. I simply could not take seriously any advice that was accompanied by an appeal to magic.

Today, I find myself completely without mentors. It is not as if I have all the answers. At age 44, I most certainly do not. But because my life was peopled with magical thinkers, leaving the world of magical thinkers has left me without advisors. That leaves me as the highest authority in my life. That said, I am not sure my best lights are any worse than someone who believes in holy water, or that eating a bite of cracker places them in magical contact with the body of their crucified god. I feel like mentors and heroes are important. On the other side of religion, I feel the loss of them daily.


Once I set to the task, I thought this project would be easy. More fool, I. There are so many things that lead a person to take one path or the other, he is not even aware of all of them. In a cosmic sense, I have no idea why I, alone in my family, have been able to break away from the theistic worldview. Not only do I not wish to believe, but I am so made that I cannot believe.

I have tried to believe with all my might. I have tried to fit into the faith community on both sides of my own faith. I never wanted to rock the boat or be a rebel. I never wanted to hear my own father tell me to my face that I was a hopelessly lost infidel controlled by Satan. But I have lived long enough to hear those words, and recently enough so that they still ring fresh in my mind.

The Church of Christ is an interesting case study. It is one of those denominations that either has to be completely right, or all religion is wrong. You do not leave the Church of Christ for another denomination as a general rule. Once you walk away from the churches of Christ, you walk away from theism. They manage to poison the entire well of religion. I suspect they have made more atheists out of their adherents than Christopher Hitchens.

Hyper-rigid religions do not allow their members any flexibility. To bend is to break. Had I grown up on the more liberal side of the churches of Christ, I might have hung in a lot longer. But I suspect that I would have eventually left anyways. Liberal churches would have been more accommodating to my doubts. But at the end of the day, I still would have rejected even the liberal notion of god. I would also have rejected the bible as any kind of authority.

I suspect my path was determined more by nature than nurture. I really am incapable of believing in any extraordinary thing in the absence of extraordinary evidence. It is much like a person born with extra chromosomes that create gender confusion. I simply could not have chosen to be any other way. I tried. Perhaps evolution has naturally selected some of us to see the universe as it is, omitting the gene that allows us to believe in fantasies.

Does that sound the tiniest bit arrogant and self-important to you? It does to me too. Yet I cannot be any other way. I am surrounded by people who believe the world is powered by more magic than a Harry Potter novel, and is populated with more magical beings than Middle Earth. I have no choice but to think myself elevated above that. I am not sorry, and I shall never recant. I am on a mission of sorts. One might even call it evangelistic. Perhaps that is just more cruft from my Church of Christ upbringing.

My mission is to spread the truth of reality in a world intent on embracing fantasy. I use my blog as my pulpit. I hope to reach people who are much as I was. I say the things I wish someone had said to me when I was younger and impressionable. I would consider the mission a success if I can help one person avoid wasting their life on a false and unworthy god. If I can help a thousand get beyond religion, that would be even better.

David Johnson



To the beginning, and beyond

I came by my doubts honestly. It took years of study and soul-searching before I could admit that my faith was in a state of crisis. By faith, I did not just mean an acceptance of a particular point of doctrine. I also do not mean doubts about my exclusive denomination. My crisis of faith went beyond religion in general, and even scriptural inspiration. I had a real crisis of faith because, for the first time, I was seriously starting to doubt the existence of God.

I couldn’t locate God in any tangible sense. God’s morality as testified to in the bible was suspect. It was certainly different from any morality I claimed as my own. From the monstrous acts of the God of the Jews, to the insistence of Jesus that the majority of the world would burn in Hell, the bible’s moral messages I could wholeheartedly endorse were few and far between.

I could not locate God in the sciences. What I found was a world ordered in such a way that no god was required to explain its workings and appearances. Things once believed to be the workings of god were discovered to be the results of natural processes. Sickness was not caused by sin or disobedience. Health and long life were not the result of righteous living, or being obedient to one’s parents. Those prayed for by armies of the righteous were just as likely to die of cancer as those who worshiped the devil.

I could not locate God in my day to day life. I saw no evidence of supernatural intervention in any aspect of life. My fortune was not better or worse with or without confidence in God. My bills were not smaller or easier to pay. My inner spirit was not more or less satisfied. My experience was insufficient. So I expanded it to encompass the whole world. I could not find God in any pocket of human experience. Disease, war, oppression, and poverty visited the lion’s share of the earth’s population at any given time. The nation that was the happiest, wealthiest, cleanest, and most well balanced in almost every category was the most atheistic. The most religious seemed to also suffer the most. The cosmos smashed planets and blew up stars as if they didn’t matter at all. There was no evidence of a guiding, loving, miraculous hand anywhere I looked. As hard as I tried, I could find no god.

I had to give up on finding god in the present. He was nowhere to be found. Even so, there was one more place I could look. Though God was not to be found in my present, he was definitely to be found in my past. I had to know why I believed in him in the first place. My whole life had been based on belief in God. I didn’t just believe he was real. I knew it. I knew it just as sure as I had come to know he was not real. I had to know if God was hiding from me because I was the recipient of one of those strong delusions, or if I had been deluded about his presence my whole life. I laid out all the reasons I ones believed, and held them up to scrutiny. For the purposes of this article, I narrowed it down to three reasons:

I was born into faith

I can be honest and objective about it now. Back then, I denied it with all my might. My father had other jobs. But through it all, he was always a preacher. I was always a preacher’s kid. There was never a time when I did not go to church at least three times a week. Two of those times were on Sunday. There was never a time when I didn’t know about collection plates, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism. There was never a time when I was unaware of my sinful, hell bound condition. When I could stand it no more, I was baptized. That was at age 7. There was no getting around it. I was born into the church. I never had any choice to do or believe anything else.

By the time I was 7, I was thoroughly indoctrinated. Some might say brainwashed. I would not disagree with that assessment. After all, that is the whole point of convincing a half preteen that he is desperately wicked and on the fast track to perdition. The word, “abuse” comes to mind. I don’t lightly use such an emotionally charged word. I also do not use it in a mean spirited way. An act need not be malicious to be abusive. How many children were beaten to within an inch of their lives out of love for the child’s soul, and devotion to God? Imposing religion on children young enough to still believe in Santa Clause is a form of mental and emotional abuse. Good intentions notwithstanding.

Because the bible said so

I recognize this reasoning is circular and invalid. But as a child who grew up with it as a cornerstone, it went unquestioned for most of my life. It goes something like this: The bible is God’s infallible word. The bible tells us that God exists. Therefore, God tells us that he exists, and God cannot lie. Therefore, God exists. Of course, the flaw in this logic is one that believers are incapable of considering. We are conditioned to unquestioningly accept the bible as a sort of magic book that is completely accurate and true in all its details. If the bible is not true, then our entire foundation of faith falls apart like a house of cards built on the sand in a windstorm.

Here’s the thing. If something is presented to you as the exact words of the living God, then you kind of have to respect it. It is one thing to doubt your parents and teachers. But to doubt God would surely get you a first-class ticket to Hell. Doubting or questioning the bible was tantamount to doubting and questioning God. No one in their right mind would do that.

So strong is the acceptance of scripture as sacred on some level, even those who come to believe that the bible is not the literal word of God still hang on to aspects of theism and religion that can only be supported by a literal reading of the bible. They still go to church as if it were a sacred assembly. They still tithe as if they were Jewish males with a literal share of the promised land. They still believe in the fall while rejecting a literal creation, eden, and the works. Most important, they still believe in the god of the bible long after they stop believing in the bible.

They can question bits and pieces of the bible while still accepting the bible as a whole, whatever that means. They have no hermeneutic or guiding interpretive principal for deciding which parts of the bible to accept and which to reject. The god of the bible and his will for us somehow transcends the words written in the bible and all their many faults. I can’t explain it any better than that. I can only say that I was such a person. I believed in the god of the bible and his religion because it was in the bible, and the bible was beyond critical scrutiny. How are you supposed to apply human criticism to the inspired words of God? The very idea was absurd, until I actually did it.

I needed it to be true

Finally, I believed in the god of the bible and his religion because I needed it to be true. My whole life was based on it being true. If the bible wasn’t true and there was no god of the bible, then I didn’t know who I was any more. Though my textual study of the bible rendered it impotent as a sacred text, I still held on to the God delusion it fostered. Theism was the only worldview I understood. Without it, I didn’t know how to relate to politics, ethics, or humanity in general.

Just as bad, I didn’t know how to relate to the rest of the world of believers. If I denounced God, I would be alone in the world. I had a large community of liberal minded friends who happened to be believers in some kind of god. My family was still staunchly conservative in their belief. I stood to lose my entire community. I wanted to believe in god with all my being.

I tried a watered down version of god. It didn’t take. Deism held no appeal for me. The clock winder god who set things in motion and left them to wind down as they will was like having no god at all. What is the point of having a god who doesn’t actually do anything or promise anything. That kind of god doesn’t even watch. He has already done what he had to do. What follows does not interest him, nor he, me.


I would have been content to believe that God really was there, but had abandoned me to a strong delusion for my unfaithfulness. Even though it would forever leave me outside of his grace, there would still be a god around which I navigated my life. But the reasons I believed in the first place all turned out to be bad reasons.

My father was not a stupid man. He had a college degree from a conservative Christian university. He majored in bible. He was most certainly not a man of science. He had a large library of bibles, religious books and commentaries. He specialized in the minor prophets. He instilled in me the love of books if only by example. But I never once saw a science text in his library. He never quoted Einstein, or even Newton. I don’t think he understood physics at any level. It was simply a non-issue. I don’t believe he ever understood the science of evolution or creationism. For him, the bible was the only science he needed. The rest was the Devil’s playground.

The bible was not written by God, or inspired by God, or compiled by God, or even proofread by God. There are more textual errors in it as there are in my own writing. There was nothing superhuman about the grammar, spelling, composition, or fact checking. Most textual errors are written off as scribal errors. But if a magic book can have a scribal error, then it is not a magic book. If God dictated it word for word, but those words were written down inaccurately, then it is not the bible.

It wasn’t just the scribal errors that sank the bible as a legitimate source; it was the contradictions and outright atrocities in the stories about who God is. I got tired of spin doctoring obvious contradictions in the text. Different writers had opposing ideas about important matters of faith. Paul and James really were not saying the same things about faith and works. The four gospels really do not harmonize.

Beyond that, almost every direct act of God recorded in the bible is morally reprehensible. His laws were morally reprehensible. That goes double for his plan of salvation. The tenth plague, alone, disqualifies God from being an object of devotion. The fact that he ever thought that homosexuals, adulterers, and disobedient children should be put to death is just icing on the morally bankrupt cake. If I actually believed in this god, I would devote my life to hunting him down and killing him. I would never voluntarily bend the knee to the monster identified as the god of the bible.

Finally, I no longer need him. I never needed him. I just didn’t know it until recently. I often pondered this question: What would I be like if there was no god? Would I run wild through the streets raping, pillaging and plundering with reckless abandon? Would I become hateful or indifferent toward my fellow man? Would I give over to drugs, sex, and rock n roll? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding “NO” to all of the above.

More or less, I am the same person on this side of faith as the other. In many ways, I am better. I have extended my concern for people to include those I once wrote off as enemies of God. I have a greater appreciation for how the universe really works, and my place in it. When I do a good deed, it is 100% because of my compassion, not because I am trying to fulfill a duty. When someone does something nice for me, I acknowledge that kindness rather than redirect that gratitude to another being who deserves none of the credit.

I am more respectful to women. The bible inspired male domination complex no longer applies to me. I no longer need a heavenly father to tell me what to do. I can figure it out on my own. My decisions without god have, in aggregate, been better than they were with god. I can make decisions on reality rather than childish hope and the power of prayer.

But not everything has come up roses. Don’t think for a moment that one can go from Church of Christ rockstar to atheist without consequences. In the final chapter of this biography, I will detail those challenges.

David Johnson 



Beyond religion: the quest for god

Why is religion so diverse? This is the question that drove me. What, if anything, was behind the curtain of religion? If God gave a message that he wanted everybody to have and understand, one would think everybody would have it and understand it. That does not seem to be the case at all. No two people seem to have broad agreement on what it is God has said or what he wants. For the longest time, I was convinced that I knew. Naturally, I was in the minority. God delivered his word to one and all through the bible. There were no private communications as they would be superfluous to what was already written in the bible, and freely available to everyone on the planet.

If anyone wanted to know exactly what God had to say on any given topic, they only had to open the bible and correctly parse the meaning of what was there. Simple. Increasingly, I became concerned by the fact that so many people kept coming up with different conclusions than mine. This represented a problem and required an explanation. In the past, I was content to believe that those with different opinions were either too stupid to understand simple truth, or they were insincere in their desire to know the truth. Another accepted reason was that they were so caught up in sin, God had given them a strong delusion so that that they would believe a lie. If you are not Verizon familiar with the Christian scriptures, you might not be aware of how this one works. Take a look:

 …and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. 2Th. 2:10-12

That’s right, people. If you take pleasure in wickedness, you are just someone who refused to believe the truth. God wants to make sure he judges you while you are in that condition of unbelief. Therefore, he will send you a deluding influence to make sure you continue to believe what is false. That’s what you get for not loving the truth in the first place. In the Hebrew scriptures, there is a direct example of how God used a lying spirit to deceive someone so that he could get his way. Don’t even bother trying to square this with all that talk about how God hates lying liars. It seems he has a cross-licensing agreement with the father of lies. If you are not all that interested in knowing the truth, God will make sure that you never can.

That is what I thought had happened to the billions of people who disagreed with me. The search for God had to begin with a search for truth wherever it led. The bible had already told me to seek, and I would find. Thing is, I wasn’t the only true seeker. Therefore, I shouldn’t have been the only truth finder. I had enough experience with the denominational world to know that their problem wasn’t that they were too stupid, or insincere, or caught up in sin. If they had received a strong delusions so that they would believe lies, how did I know that I wasn’t equally deluded? If we were all seeking the same truth, why were we not finding the same god at the end of the same answers?

Their god cared about very different things than my god. Some of them had a god that was still active in the affairs of men in overtly miraculous ways. Mine wasn’t. Their god cared about social justice a lot more than mine. Their god was not particular about worship details. Mine was. Their god did not have a lot of rules about everyday living and habits. Mine did. Their god allowed dancing and swearing. Not mine. Their god liked churches with steeples and bell towers. Mine didn’t. Their god was very ecumenical. Mine wasn’t. I could not wrap my mind around their god. Yet mine was the minority god. After having many conversations and reading many books, I just could not understand why there was so little agreement about what it was God was trying to say to us. After what seemed to be an eternity of reading and rereading the bible, I realized I had no idea what it was trying to say either. By the time I was 35, I had been on both sides of every issue. I was just as confused as everyone else. I was looking for God to provide me with some sort of clarity that never came. I sought God through scripture. I prayed for truth. I begged for clarity. I learned the bible very well, but found no god within. I would have to widen my search.

God of the gaps

There was an uneasy and complex dance between the churches of Christ and science. Above all else, we revered truth. We also gave lip service to science. For the most part, we believed in three levels of revelation. The first is the revelation of our spirit. Everyone knows that God exists because we all have a god-shaped hole in our hearts that can only be filled by God. We have a knowledge of right and wrong. We have a sense of the eternal, etc. The second level is what some might call the book of nature. Mostly, it just refers to science. We can look around and see the evidence of creation. The observable evidence points to God if it is interpreted correctly. The third level is the bible. The other levels point to God and his nature. The bible provides the specifics. The bible is the only one necessary. The other two just serve to confirm it, not that any confirmation is needed. If a person insists there is no god, the book of nature and the god-infused spirit would be enough proof of the contrary..

Both of those point to the bible in the end. But since the bible had failed me, or I it, I had to look to the other two levels. At that point, I was not looking for religious details, just God. My inner spirit was not doing much for me either. That just left the book of nature. I had determined to get as familiar with that book as possible. It is not fair to say that I began a serious pursuit of scientific understanding at that time, since I had always appreciated science, and thought I knew the basics pretty well. While I would never be a biologist or physicist, I did have a good grasp of the scientific method. Without the bible to point me to God, I found it necessary to brush up on science. My intent was to discover God through science.

What I found was shocking to me. Rather than God being made evident through observation, I found the opposite. If evidence for God was there, it was well hidden. It seemed God went out of his way to be undiscoverable in nature. From astronomy, to geology, to biology, to psychology, to history, the universe was dressed in a cloak of independent operation. Science revealed the universe to be old and evolved, not young and instantly mature. God had cleverly hidden himself behind illusion. We were to believe in him despite the best evidence in front of us, not because of it. Science was a test of faith, not an affirmation of it. For the first time, I felt the real antagonism between faith and science. I realized that all of my evidences for the existence of God were the gaps in my scientific understanding. The more gaps I was able to fill, the less room there was for god. I devoted myself to biology, physics, astrophysics, quantum physics geology, ecology, history, anthropology, and anything else that could be consumed from books and lectures. After that, I applied myself to philosophy, logic and reason. I did not abandon God. I looked every place I could think to look, including introspectively. He simply was not there.

If he existed at all, he was hiding from me. The broader I expanded my search, the fewer clues I had of his whereabouts. During this time, I was praying a lot, constantly. One might even say that I was praying without ceasing. My prayers had come down to one simple request: “Show thyself!” If a glimpse of his awesomeness would drive me blind, I could live with that. I by bolstering my faith with certain knowledge of his existence would disqualify me from all but the room next to the noisy ice machine for all eternity, then I was prepared for that. I just wanted a sign, any sign. A still, small voice of a deafening roar would have been equally welcome. I was desperate and willing to die on the spot for the confirmation I sought. In my search for God, I left no stone unturned. I just wasn’t there, at least, not for me.

Conclusion: full circle

And so it was that my search for god ended in failure. But I was not yet done. Perhaps I couldn’t find God with human effort. Perhaps God would appear to me on his terms and in a time of his own choosing. At the very least, I wanted to collect all the reasons I believed in God in the first place, and with a fresh set of eyes, see if any of them had merit. If they did, then perhaps God was there, but hidden from me. I refused to be the victim of a strong delusion. So I started a new examination. I lined up all my previous reasons for believing in God in the first place, and measured them against my newfound insight.

David Johnson



The search for the ancient order

One of the first, serious, multi-volume tomes I read on the subject of church history wass called, “The Search for the Ancient Order”. It focused on the Restoration movement, which is not to be confused with the Reformation movement. The two should never be confused. Reformation was about reforming the existing church infrastructure to bring it more in line with what it was intended to be. It suggests that the true church just got a little off track and only needed a bit of a course correction. Restoration was about reconstructing the original church from scratch. The existing church structure was so flawed as to no longer be a part of the original, if it ever was. The ancient order no longer existed, and had to be meticulously reconstructed from what original DNA we could find.

This book, however, was ultimately unhelpful as it just ended up promoting the Church of Christ as the ultimate end of the quest. But that could not be the ultimate end for me as I had already discovered that the churches of Christ were fundamentally flawed. To discover the true trail of the ancient order, I would have to expand my search to include other traditions.

Some other doctrine

Paul made it clear to the Galatians that they were to accept no other doctrine than that which they had received from him. The churches of Christ were very clear that the only doctrine was their doctrine, which was Paul’s doctrine. Anyone teaching any other doctrine was to be considered accursed. Just so it was perfectly clear, even if an angel from heaven taught this other doctrine, it was to be ignored. Unfortunately, careful research into the matter left Church of Christ doctrine weighed, and found wanting. For truth, I would have to seek out some other doctrine.

That meant visiting other denominations, which in general, was frowned upon. But once I acknowledged to myself that the Church of Christ was nothing more than a denomination of human origin, flawed just like everyone else, then there was no reason for me not to visit other churches to see what truth they might have to offer. Though I recognized this intellectually, it was still difficult to accept emotionally. Be that as it may, I started branching out, but not by much.

My first explorations were of liberal churches of Christ. You have to understand that conservative churches of Christ viewed most liberal churches of Christ the same as all other denominations. Once I started visiting them, I soon understood why that was. These churches did not hold as many things sacred. They acknowledged the fact that there were Christians in other denominations. Many of them had no ethical problem with using instruments in the worship assembly, though few actually did.

I tried several of these churches and liked them a lot. Unfortunately  they were still churches of Christ. Seldom did they expand their fellowship beyond the traditional churches of Christ. If I wanted to truly explore what religion had to offer I would have to go beyond the Church of Christ. That is precisely what I did. I got a job as the choir director at a United Methodist church. There, I helped revive the choral tradition they once had. I planned the worship assembly. I taught sight reading. I helped plan special events. I did all the things that could never be done in the mainline churches of Christ. Beyond that, I had great conversations with the pastor. You see, I was just an employee, not a member. I never became a member.

When I applied for the job, I made it clear that while I was no longer in agreement with Church of Christ doctrine, I would never become a member of the United Methodist church, or any other denomination for that matter. I let them know that their beliefs were foreign to mine, but that I would give them a heck of a music program. Amazingly, they were cool with that. Tangentially, It was a white church where I was the only black attendee.

There were so many reasons for them not to hire me. The fact that they did changed my life forever. I never imagined that something called church, wrapped in religion, could be so different from what I grew up with. I was amazed at how little friction there was between me and the clergy. I was as much an outsider as you could get. I could write a lengthy post about the experience. Suffice it to say, it was a pivotal moment in my religious development.

I will mention one detail about my time there. It was something that led to my undoing as their music director. It wasn’t long after the choir really started rocking that they wanted to get the old robes out of mothballs. Sound good, look good. I balked at the idea of choir robes. My conservatism reared its ugly head. I felt like robes suggested a form of differentiation between members that was unseemly. My objection was amplified when I saw the robe they insisted I wear. It was Pope-like in its ostentation. To wear it implied that you were not only somebody, but somebody whose ring should be kissed. I was definitely not that person, nor did I want to be. That priestly robe showed me the limits of my ego. I believed in egalitarianism among brothers and sisters in Christ. That Robe represented a pedestal on which I did not wish to stand. I wasn’t even a member. I disagreed with many of their core beliefs. I felt like such a fraud.

I wore the robe anyway for a few weeks. There were people who helped me dress with the appropriate ornamentation. It was everything I feared it to be. When I was a younger, rising star in the churches of Christ, that robe represented everything I hoped to achieve. Once it was thrust upon me, I had changed so much, I couldn’t bear it. I stopped wearing the robe. Religion with a high-church gloss was never going to be a good fit for me.

For a few years, I wondered in the desert of churchlessness. Becoming a foster parent changed all that. I thought raising a child necessitated some time of community grounding. At the time, I still thought that religion offered the best take on morality. So my wife and I decided to start attending a neighborhood church in walking distance of where we lived. It was a Covenant church. I attended for several years before moving on.

Again, I never became a member of that church. But functionally, that only meant that I could not vote in meetings. It didn’t mean that I couldn’t teach, or be on committees. So I taught classes and was on a few committees that also had a profound impact on the rest of my life. I will refrain from writing a volume on that time in my life. The debates and discussions were priceless. I was able to help shape and participate in programs that were meaningful, and resonate to this day. For me, it was the first time that religion was less about doctrine, and more about social consequences. What I believed was less important than what I did. There, I had a chance to join action with faith.

After that, I started a podcast called, Church Visitor, or something like that. Each week, I would visit a different church of a different denomination. I would record the entire service and interviews with members and someone from the leadership. I posted snippets of all that to my website. I wanted to experience all of religion. I took in as much as I could consume. I experienced everything from high-church Catholicism, to low-church slaying in the spirit. Tongues, wild dancing, an hour of silence: I tasted it all. I know religion at its most dignified and undignified. I’ve know the most conservative to the most liberal. I’ve even done Friends and Unitarians. I know religion better than the vast majority of seminary graduates. I have weighed it all, and found it all wanting.


After reading this, you might think my search for the ancient order a miserable failure. In fact, it was a profound success. Like most quests, I ended up in a place I never imagined at the beginning. My great discovery was that there was no ancient order. There never was a first-century church writ large in bold letters. There was never a blueprint for what a proper church should be. There was no apostolic creed. There was no codified set of beliefs that all of the apostles taught to all new converts. There was no leadership structure replicated in all the churches.

What one can find in the Christian scriptures are people who were making it up as they went, and doing the best they could to live out their understanding of what it was to be a follower of Jesus. There were only a handful of people in the world still alive who had ever met Jesus. Consider this: Paul never met Jesus before the crucifixion, and Paul is the one most instrumental in defining modern religion. If not for Paul, the religion of the original apostles would have died out as just another failed Jewish sect. That said, not one of the churches Paul established survived either.

Christianity is a malleable organism that can reshape and reinvent itself for maximum survivability from one generation to the next. There is no ancient order, and never will be. Today’s religion is just as valid as what the Corinthians practiced in the days of Paul. Religious people are doing the best they can to live out what it means to be a follower of Jesus despite the fact that there is no one alive today who has ever met him. Today’s religious complex is a remarkable social achievement. It is also a useless pursuit. It is ultimately the wrong search. It asks the wrong questions. For me, the quest did not end; it changed. I no longer had any interest in finding the ancient order. I cared only about finding God.

David Johnson



In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is an ancient tale of a fortified city with walls that could not be breached. God had a plan to take that city. So he had his soldiers march around the city seven times. On the final circuit, they would blow trumpets. With that mighty blast, the walls would come atumblin down. I begin this post with this particular story because it was the insistent blast of instrumental music that would bring down the fortified walls of my faith.

You will recall that one of the doctrinal distinctives of the Church of Christ is the exclusive use of non-instrumental music in worship. To put it bluntly, singing in church with instrumental accompaniment will send you to hell faster than being a mass murderer. In fact, if the mass murderer was a member of the Church of Christ, he would have a much better shot at Heaven. I grew up believing in the absolute correctness of that position. As I grew more and studied more, I began to have doubts.

To fully appreciate my quandary, you have to know a little more about me, or at least, the me that was. I was a talented, perhaps even gifted singer. It manifested early, and was quite unambiguous. By the time I was 13, I was something of a celebrity in my church circles which happened to be quite broad. Since we didn’t employ the talents of piano players, we used song leaders to direct the singing of the congregation. I was a champion, award-winning song leader. I mean that literally. I have the trophies to prove it. I was known nationally for my ability. I was heavily invested in the Church of Christ doctrine of singing a cappella.

I was also a burgeoning musician. I played several band instruments, and was becoming proficient at the piano. I would go on to be a published song writer. But that is another story. I had the musical chops to become a church musician. I had the singing voice to be one of the premier song leaders of my time. I had no interest in bringing instruments into the church. I did, however, want to formally introduce the use of choirs into the official worship service. As hard as I tried, I could find nothing wrong with it. Neither command, example, inference, nor silence from the scripture forbad the practice as near as I could tell.

One of our favorite slogans was that we would speak where the bible speaks, and remain silent where the bible was silent. On the matter of choirs, I became increasingly certain that we were making law where there was none for the sake of our comfortable tradition. On that subject, we simply were not right. As I studied the subject of acceptable modes of musical expression in church, I also began to question our stance on instrumental music. That is where the real problems began. While in the church, there was always an undercurrent of debate among liberals and troublemakers about music in church. There were always some who argued that our traditional position was wrong. I lost one or two of those debates growing up. Those counter arguments stayed with me. When it was my turn to take a good, long, independent look into the matter, I had to acknowledge that the Church of Christ position might be wrong. And that was a really big deal.

Understand that I didn’t immediately admit that we were wrong, just that we could be wrong. That was pretty much the same thing. The possibility of not being right about an important religious matter was enough to rock my world. That may sound strange to you. But you are not thinking like a religious conservative. Consider this: A Catholic would never consider the possibility that the Pope could be wrong. In orthodox Catholicism, the Pope can’t be wrong. He is infallible. That would be like saying Jesus or Paul was wrong about a matter of doctrine. The notion is simply preposterous. Though the Church of Christ had no Pope, our unwritten creed was our infallible doctrine. Our beliefs were not right because we thought they were right. Our beliefs were right because they were decreed by God. It was not just that we were right, but that there was no possibility of us being wrong.

To admit the possibility of being wrong was to admit that our doctrine was not the precise dictates of God, but merely our interpretation. If we were acting in accordance to our human interpretation, then we were no better than the Baptists who were clearly going to Hell. Yet as more time past, the more I knew we were wrong. Music was a salvific issue for us. It was not a secondary matter. I had become convinced that we were wrong about a salvific issue. The only way to salvage my faith was to demote music to a secondary issue. As I became more vocal about the matter, I grew out of favor with the leadership. The last thing they needed was an up and coming influencer who would draw people away from the status quo.

I had worked out in my mind that it was okay to be wrong about secondary issues. There was another saying of which we were somewhat less fond: In matters of faith, unity. In matters of opinion, liberty. In all things, charity. The problem is that we hardly credited anything as a matter of opinion. It was all a matter of faith. I soon came to realize that one person’s matter of faith was another person’s matter of opinion. As a hermeneutic, this was untenable. There had to be some way to distinguish the two. I devoted the remainder of my time in the church looking for the delineating factor. I never found it. If we could be wrong about our classifications of faith and opinion, we could be wrong about anything. We could be wrong about everything! That realization shook me to the core, and changed my life forever.

Conclusion: the highest authority

Everything had to be reexamined, and I had to be the one to do it. I couldn’t trust anyone else, not even my father. Everyone I respected as a church leader was painfully and obviously wrong about some fundamental things. It started with music, but didn’t end there. Who could I go to but the liberals and the troublemakers. They were the only ones who could see behind the curtain. They were the only ones not blinded by tradition and personal preference. I sought them out. I read their books. I questioned and debated them. I had to be sure. Never again would I be the victim of another person’s faith. There was only one thing for me to do. I had to reexamine everything I had been taught. And reexamine, I did.

Durring the process of reexamination, I discovered the most unsettling thing of all. I had become the highest authority in my religion. I trusted no one else, for they had all deceived me, with few exceptions. My church was no longer infallible. They could and had gotten things wrong. The only way I could know what was right was to study it for myself, and accept what was revealed by the evidence. I was equipped for the study. I had been preparing all my life for this adventure. I had the resources and the knowledge. What I gained was the conviction that I would believe nothing that I could not understand and prove for myself, at least in the realm of religion.

With that resolve in place, I opened my bible and read it again for the first time. Shocked at what I discovered, I read it again, and again. After some time, I was finally able to acknowledge an unavoidable truth: As a lifetime member of the churches of Christ, I was quite literally wrong about everything I once held dear. And the walls of my Church of Christ Jericho came atumblin down.

David Johnson



Rightly dividing the word of truth

 Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately. 2Tim. 2:15 (NET)

This is a much better rendering of the passage I grew up with. The KJV said, “Study to show thyself approved unto God.” Of course, not all of my bible teachers were very conversant with 17th century English. The word, “study” had absolutely nothing to do with reading and becoming informed on a matter. It means to strive, work hard, endeavor, better still, make every effort. To this day, and with maximum irony. The Church of Christ misinterprets that verse as using the modern American word for study. This is the verse we most employ in the mission of provoking members to read their bibles. The passage meant nothing of the sort. There were no bibles on every coffee table to read. There was just an old man encouraging a young apprentice to work hard at his craft. The passage most known for its call to rightly divide the word of truth is wrongly divided.

Comical misinterpretations notwithstanding, a major tentpole of the churches of Christ is their commitment to accurate and infallible transmission of the precise words of God as transmitted through time in the form of the bible. We do like to say that we have the correct interpretation of the bible as much as to say that we understand it correctly. The bible is not open to private interpretation. It does not need to be interpreted, only read with honest eyes. If you are interpreting the bible, you are already doing something wrong. Interpreting is something of a red flag for us.

That is not to say that we, they do not have methods of interpreting the bible. In bible college, students would learn the word, “hermeneutics”. That is nothing more than the art of interpreting a document. We had a particular hermeneutic for interpreting scripture. The following three items guided all of our biblical interpretations:

  • Direct command
  • Approved example
  • Necessary inference

Direct Command

You will notice that each item is preceded by a modifier. It is not just command: “Take a little wine for your stomach’s sake”, but direct command: “Love one another”. The first is indirect and situational. The second is universal, and can be applied to all people in all places at all times. Surely, no hermeneutic could be more clear than this. If God, himself, gives a direct command to you and the entire world, then that should be the last word. Except… God, himself, never gave you and the whole world a direct command. It is all open to interpretation. Consider the following: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” That sounds an awful lot like a direct command. The Church of Christ doctrine of evangelism is partially based on this command. We interpret it as a literal command for every active member of the church.

But was Jesus delivering this edict to every member of his (at the time) nonexistent church? That makes little sense. We assume the apostles dread this teaching as they established the church. We figure that every new convert was given this instruction immediately after their baptism. However, the bible does not support anything like this. There  are many examples of conversion, but none of this instruction to the recently converted. It stands to reason that at the very least, every would-be book of the Christian scriptures would feature this command. That is not the case either.

Since the vast majority of the people living in the first century would never see the writing that features this command, it could not have been intended for them. That means that only Jesus’ disciples gathered around him at that moment, and those who would have a complete copy of the bible much, much later were the recipients of that command. That also seems rather selective. If Jesus gave the command at all, the only thing we can say is that he gave it directly to his disciples that were with him at the time.

It gets even more ridiculous. Every convert is not equipped to sponsor a worldwide mission to preach the gospel to every creature, or even every nation. How many nations have you visited? How many creatures have you preached to? Right. So in what universe  do we suppose that everyone who becomes a Christian is to preach the gospel to every creature and nation? None! That is how much sense that passage makes as a direct command. There are no direct commands. They are all subject to similar interpretation. We are still in search of a consistent hermeneutic.

Approved example

It only gets worse from here. An example is any bit of narrative that illustrates a particular behavior of the protagonist. An approved example is one that carries the weight of command without a specific directive. “On the first day of the week, the disciples came together to break bread.” “Afterward, they sang a hymn and went out.” The first example clearly teaches that we are to take the Lord’s supper every Sunday. In the second example, we are taught that no church meeting can end without a closing song.

Naturally, the bible is full of examples of protagonists doing things that we do not emulate. We really only consider examples approved when they have something to do with the assembly. That is the problem with using this as any sort of hermeneutical principle. Who gets to say which examples have the weight of command and which do not. It also pretends that everything they did represented the perfect and mandatory execution of God’s inviolable will. Even if you want to be like someone you respect, you don’t copy his every action. Most of what a person does is unimportant, personal preference. The Church of Christ has traditionally made no distinction between important behaviors to be copied, and unimportant behaviors that can safely be ignored. Without such fine tuning, the principle is useless.

Necessary inference

This is the slipperiest of all the hermeneutical slopes. How do we know that Sunday is the official day of meeting for the church. Believe it or not, the bible never says. Here’s how it works. We have commands and examples that show the early Christians had a common meal on the first day of the week. We extrapolate that the meal either was, or contained the Lord’s supper. We also know that at least for a brief period of time, a few of the churches collected a charitable donation on the first day of the week. Since Jesus was said to have risen on the First day of the wee, early Christians started keeping that day sacred instead of the traditional Sabbath. From these bits and pieces, we must necessarily infer that Sunday was the day they set aside for worshiping God. This inference bears the weight of infallible, direct command.

You do not have to be very imaginative to see how this can all go awry. The same inference bait that has us meeting on Sunday every week, should also have use sending money to the poor saints in Jerusalem every week. That is what that first day a week collection was all about. It had nothing to do with paying for meeting halls, staff, and church programs. Furthermore, it was only temporary. The same bible tells us that for the most part, assemblies were held in private homes, not corporately funded buildings. What can we infer from that? Just about anything.

And that’s the problem with inference. That is the problem with all of it. The solid hermeneutic on which we hung our faith was about as constant as curdled milk. Like Play Dough, we could bend it, twist it, and shape it into anything we needed it to be. To this day, members of the Church of Christ believe the quicksand of their hermeneutic is solid, unshakable ground. They simply do not understand why you don’t see things their way. With this simple hermeneutic, the bible should read the same to everyone the world over. If you do not understand these simple truths, there must be something wrong with you.


There were other hermeneutical principles such as the continuity of the testaments, and the silence of scripture, not covered here. The point is that for me and my kind, the bible was not only the absolute word of God, but it was completely understandable with very few grey areas. Not only did we have the truth which was available to everyone, we had the only correct interpretation of the truth. That made us unique. Of course I thought I knew everything. I did know everything that was important. We all did, and I was one of the best of the bunch.

Perhaps you will forgive my arrogance when you understand that for me to admit to anything less than perfect knowledge was the same as me admitting that I didn’t know God’s will. And if I didn’t know God’s will, then I was as hell bound as the rest of the world. Knowledge was power. And perfect knowledge was the gift of our golden hermeneutic. If that hermeneutic were to start showing cracks, the faith would crumble. It would not be long before the first cracks in that slippery surface would start to show. The reverberations continue to this day.

David Johnson



The unwritten creed

Most creeds are concerned with the underlying truth claims of a religious worldview. They affirm certain events such as the virgin birth to be historical and true in the literal sense. Some creeds may be more interested in cosmological issues such as the nature and preexistence of Jesus, the human spirit, free will, and sin. The nature of God, the trinity, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit would also make the list in most creeds. If the church of Christ had a creed, all of that would be relegated to footnotes. What we most cared about was the order of worship. Some traditions care more about the foundational truths of the religion while paying little attention to lifestyle. Some care only about lifestyle and are flexible about esoteric matters. The Church of Christ was primarily interested in what takes place during a worship assembly. That is not to say that esoteric matters and lifestyle issues were unimportant. They were just secondary. Our creed was about how to do church, not how to be church.

This point cannot be stressed too much. When we went into a home on an evangelistic mission to make a convert, we spent most of our time dealing with matters of the assembly. We never wasted effort trying to bring someone to faith in Christ who did not already believe. For us, evangelism was converting a person from their denomination to ours, that is to say, the one true church: the Church of Christ. We did not regard the Baptists and Methodists as Christians. They were lost souls. Their only hope was to convert to our religion. In all fairness, I didn’t know any atheists. I seldom met anyone who didn’t believe in God. In the Deep South, everyone had some experience with a church, even if it wasn’t very good. Even so, we saw the devout Baptist as being no different than the person who never heard of Jesus, assuming there was such a person.

We were really into sets of five. Therefore, there were five acts of worship:

  • singing
  • praying
  • preaching
  • the Lord’s Supper
  • giving

You would be forgiven for mistaking this as a generic list of things that everyone did regardless of denomination. What you are missing is the nuance in each of these acts that make them distinctly authentic. All acts of worship had to be authentic to the first-century worshipers to be considered valid. Do any of these acts in an unauthorized way and you were not really doing them at all. I will give you the list again, this time with its stamp of authentic distinction:

Singing: This is not just an act of opening ones mouth and making musical sounds with lyrics. One had to be singing the proper songs. The bible specified psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The fact that it was in a hymnbook didn’t make it a hymn. The song had to be in precise accord with the revealed word of God. It also had to be done without the accompaniment of a musical instrument. It is one thing to sing, “Amazing Grace”. It is quite another to sing it with piano accompaniment. That would send you straight to Hell. We believed the bible was very clear that only unaccompanied singing was allowed in worship. Also, everyone had to participate.

We had a strict prohibition against the use of choirs in worship. The main reason is that choirs, by definition, were only a small subset of the assembly singing, while the rest listened in silence. That was not scriptural. There were complications, however, that were sorted out with mental gymnastics. The simple fact was that we loved to sing, and we loved choirs. Many churches of Christ have them, and use them, but not in worship per se. First, we didn’t call them choirs. We called them singing groups. That helped us avoid the stigma of having a choir.

Second, we didn’t use them in the proper assembly. For that, we only used song leaders. We had special, unofficial gatherings where the singing groups could perform. At those gatherings, there was the practice of the five acts of worship. But it was not considered worship. It was very important that we make a clear distinction between official worship services and unofficial gatherings. I’ve already gone too far into the weeds. Just know that singing was strictly regulated. If you were not a member of the Church of Christ, you were not doing it right.

Praying: Mostly, praying is what you think it is. There were a few minor distinctions to watch out for. First, like all acts of worship, only meant could lead prayer in a mixed assembly. Prayers had to be specifically addressed to God the father, and had to be done in the name of Jesus. These things had to be stated during the prayer, not silently assumed. The main prayer was usually a performance piece. It was long and drawn out, using many words to stir the audience, much like a sermon. Other prayers were more to the point.

Preaching: A sermon is a sermon is a sermon. We believed that sermons were always bible-based and filled with many scripture references. Sermons were heavy on quoting book, chapter, and verse. Anecdotes without scripture references were frowned upon. The main distinction was that an appropriate sermon must always end with the recitation of the plan of salvation. This evangelistic push was a fixture of every sermon. In my experience, if a preacher forgot to add it, or didn’t do it sufficiently, someone else would get up after the sermon and tack on the plan of salvation to complete the package.

The Lord’s Supper: You might know it as communion. The Catholics would call it the sacrament of the eucharist. There are three crucial elements: First, you had to be worthy to take it. I never quite knew what that meant. But the bible clearly stated that taking it unworthily would lead to bad things, even death. Second, it had to be the right stuff. It could not just be bread and juice. It had to be unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine. For us, that meant grape juice. Don’t try to get cute and substitute it with tomato juice. Also, it had to be unfermented. These were doctrinal, not personal preferences. Finally, it had to be taken once a week, every week, no exceptions. If you were unable to attend service, there was often a group who would bring the Lord’s Supper to your home, replete with ceremony.

Giving: Make no mistake about it. Giving was not merely a freewill offering or an institutional necessity. It was mandated by God. The amount could be any amount over 10% of your income. This was to be done on the first day of the week just like the Lord’s Supper. Inexplicably, though, it could be done as often as the leaders preferred. There was no limit on how many times the plate could be passed. It could even be passed multiple times a week if there were gatherings. The Sunday morning collection was the only official one. But others were highly encouraged. It was important to never call it a tithe like the members of other churches did. It was very specifically a collection, not a tithe.

Conclusion: the work of the church

I grew up hearing that phrase a lot. It was very important that young men be trained to do the work of the church. When you hear that, you might think of caring for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. You might conjure notions of civic reform, or standing up for the rights of the oppressed. From a Church of Christ perspective, you couldn’t be more off base. For us, the work of the church meant leading songs, public prayers, preaching sermons, officiating over the Lord’s Supper, and handling the collection trays. This was the grand high work of the one true church. These were also considered areas of leadership. Doing these things made you special. Women were not allowed to do these things. They couldn’t even pass the collection trays. Only the men were allowed to do the real work of the church.

When we learned to teach others about Christ, these are the things we presented and defended with all the weight of scripture behind us. When there was a new convert, these are the things we started teaching them to do, provided they were men. Women, we taught to keep quiet and bring tasty dishes to potlucks. Matters of social justice seldom crossed our minds. Real Christians concerned themselves with real assemblies of the church. There is a national competition for young members of the Church of Christ focused on preaching short sermons and leading songs. It is extremely elaborate because those are the critical areas of leadership that need attending. That is the real work of the real church. That was our understanding. That was our creed. Only much later did that become my shame.

David Johnson



The saved

I grew up singing an old hymn familiar to everyone who went to church every Sunday during that time. Unbeknownst to me, I was singing a slightly modified version of the song. The first time I heard it the way it was originally written, I couldn’t sing it on doctrinal grounds. You might know the song as, “When we all get to Heaven”. At no point did I ever believe that we were all going to get to Heaven. I have never been in a room of people that I felt confident would all get to Heaven. Even in a room of people who only consisted of members of the Church of Christ. I knew that even only a subset of those would get to Heaven. Growing up, I knew the song as, “When the saved get to Heaven”. That was a much truer sentiment. The white churches would tend to sing it the original way. Even so, they were not espousing an ecumenical message. They were only referring to Church of Christ members when singing that all would get to Heaven. We had plenty of in-house debates. We did not always agree on who was going to Heaven. But we were very much in agreement about who was not. If you were not a member of the Church of Christ, then you are not saved.

Nowadays, this is not a universal sentiment. However, it is still a recognizable doctrinal distinctive of the churches of Christ. There may be some individual pockets of disagreement among individuals. There are even whole congregations that take the minority view. But make no mistake about it; the possibility of salvation outside of the Church of Christ is a minority view. The individuals who feel that way have learned to keep it to themselves. As I stated in the previous post, there is no creed. But if there was a creed, this would be one of the main tenets. There is no salvation outside of the church. There is only one true church, and the Church of Christ is it. All others are mere denominations of man.

The delusion of originality

In Matthew 16, Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” The non-denominational group known as the Church of Christ sincerely believes that they are that church. That is not to say that they are a part of that church, but that they are that church. That means that no one else is any part of the church. The body of Christ is not divided. It has an unbroken lineage from Jesus to Paul to Alexander Campbell to the present-day members of the Church of Christ. History has not intervened, tampered with, or in any way altered the pristine method of doing church. If the first-century Christians were transported in time, they would find no difference in the Church of Christ today and the church of their day. Of course, this notion that we are the original Christians is a delusion, but it’s our delusion.

Today’s Church of Christ believes that it is an exact replica of the first-century church in every meaningful way. They believe there is a kind of blueprint for recreating the original church of the apostles. That blueprint was dictated right out of the mouth of Jesus and directly to the apostles. Though the bible does not detail the specifics of everything, the stories and narratives of the bible show us how the church was set up, and is therefore, an example of how it is supposed to be for all time. The churches of Christ feel they have fully captured the zeitgeist of the original. The authority of the Church of Christ comes from the idea that they, alone, have recreated the original church in exacting detail. Everyone else has at least one critical aspect of it wrong. By the way, all aspects are critical. That passage in James that says being guilty of one point of the law makes you guilty of all, is particularly applied to church organization.

Alexander Campbell, and the fully restored church

There is a crack in the delusion of originality, and its name is Alexander Campbell. The delusion begs a particular question to be asked: What became of the church between the time of the apostles and today? There is a rich, storied, and well-documented history. The churches of Christ vehemently denied having any part of that history. More to the point, they deny that any part of that history follows the true lineage of the one true church. Denying the history is absolutely essential. To accept the history is to accept that the Catholics have a clear and unbroken line of assention to the apostles. The lineage of the one true church would have to run through the Reformation Movement. We claim no brotherhood with early reformers such as Luther and Calvin. The church those men helped reform was not the right church to begin with. A reformed Catholic tradition is no more valid than the church of Satan.

Therefore, the question remains: What happened to the one true church after the last book of the bible was written? Where exactly is the handoff of the baton from the hallowed pages to the pages of secular history? Like the Tree of Life and the Ark of the Covenant, it seems to have just disappeared leaving no historical trace. Some have tried to solve the mystery by hunting down small bands of believers in various places that might be the remnant of the original church. These efforts are unsuccessful as they are arbitrary and bear no weight of verifiable scholarship. I’ve tried, and followed the efforts of others who’ve tried. It’s all bunk. The other method is to posit that the one true church shrunk to a remnant, never quite dying out altogether. Due to being small and heavily persecuted, the underground remnant was forever lost to history. There was a dark time for humanity between the closing of the canon and the mid-1800s.

Since the one true church was lost to history, it couldn’t be reformed. It had to be completely restored from scratch. Fortunately, the bible provided an indisputable blueprint for being the one true church. Also fortunately, there was a man named Alexander Campbell around to help us rediscover it. It wouldn’t be until 1906 until the churches of Christ were officially recognized. The Church of Christ has both a founder and a birthday. It is not Jesus Christ, and it is definitely not A.D. 33. The church avoids this conundrum by stating that Campbell had nothing to do with founding the Church of Christ. He only helped to rediscover and restore it to the world that had lost its historical thread. That’s their story, and they are sticking to it.


It is very important that you understand how the Church of Christ views itself. It will give you insight into how I viewed myself. The church was not one of many, nor was it a denomination. The Church of Christ stood alone as the first-century church of the apostles, fully restored in our time and untarnished by history. It was Jesus to Paul to me. I was a part of a small but elite group of people who had it all right. The sincerity and good deeds of other groups simply didn’t matter. They were running the race from the outside of the track. Only the racers on the track have a chance to win. There was only one true track, and I was on it. They were not.

That is still true for the majority of mainline Church of Christ members today. I don’t care how nicely they treat you, and how welcome they make you feel in their home. In their heart, they are convinced that if you die without being converted to their religion, you are going to burn in Hell. Neither your good nor evil makes one iota of difference. This kind of elite superiority and unwavering conviction combined with just the right personality is a dangerous combination.

David Johnson

The Church of Christ: my religious autobiography part one


I could write 10,000 words of introduction. I don’t quite know how to start, nor do I have any idea where it will end. This piece is an exploration of my past and present. Like all explorations, there will be many encounters with the unknown and unexpected. How do I separate my critical analysis of religion from the present reality of familial relationships? All of my family is still religious, deeply entrenched in beliefs with which I was raised. I may have moved on, but they didn’t. Every harsh word I have ever said about people of faith apply to my own flesh and blood. I am deeply entangled in the daily workings of my family. Every word I write is hard, and comes at a price. If I refer to religious nut jobs, you might be mildly offended. When I write those words, I have to envision my beloved mother and father who means the world to me. You do not know the half of the emotional struggles I go through when writing this blog. If you follow this series, wherever it leads, I assure you, you will have a much better idea of who I am and where I am coming from.

The Church of Christ, and the world as I knew it

I will start by showing you the shape of the world as I understood it. The religion known as the Church of Christ represented the boundaries of my world. Though mainstream, most people know very little about the religion. It boasts millions of adherents worldwide, and a number of universities of note such as Pepperdine University and Abilene Christian University. Its roots go back to the American Restoration Movement, and it is based mainly in the Southeast. It is not a secret organization. But there are good reasons why it flies mostly under the radar.

Unlike the Southern Baptists, it does not have a centralized organization. There is no one person or committee or assembly that speaks for it. There is no written creed. They say it is because the bible is all the creed that is needed or allowed. However, the more practical reason is that there is no one with the authority to write it. Decentralization means that one preacher’s word is as valid as anthers. Every congregation is autonomous. An official creed would have no power at any congregation. If one person decides that the bible is being interpreted in a way that he does not like, he can just start a new congregation insetting himself as the preacher. His congregation is just as much a Church of Christ church as the largest, most established in the world.

There is also no official ordination process for preachers. You are considered a preacher if you are allowed to preach. If you have the talent and apply yourself, you can be a preacher in the Church of Christ. While large churches tend to prefer their preachers come from a Church of Christ university with a preaching degree, formal education is not required. This is especially true for black churches where formal education was often denied. However, in the black churches, what we lacked in formal education, we made up in experience. We started out young, very young.

As a preacher’s kid, I had the inside perspective on how church was really done. I knew how the sausage was made, and I was destined to be a maker. My church career officially started at age 7 when I was baptized. As I recall, I led the closing hymn that very night, and never looked back. My first public sermon was at age 12 or 13. I preached regularly from that point on. I was not alone. There were many young protégés. I was but one of the recognized future leaders of the church. By the time I was 15, I had more experience for the job of youth minister than the majority of college graduates who studied for the position. In my early twenties, there were few assistant ministers more qualified. If one congregation accepts you as a preacher, you’re a preacher. All other congregations are obliged to accept you in that regard. That is just one of the benefits of having no centralization.

There were also drawbacks. The lack of centralization and a unified voice meant that we lacked political influence. We were not the ones on the news providing soundbites because there were no representatives of the Church of Christ as a whole. No one could speak for all of us. We were all independent. We spoke for ourselves. When someone did presume to speak for us, we tended to shoot down such efforts. We had no bishops, diocese, or popes. National political power requires a national spokesperson, and unity among the people within the organization. The extreme autonomy of the Church of Christ makes that a nonstarter.

We were also isolated by our non-mainstream beliefs. For starters, only members of the Church of Christ in good standing had any hope of going to Heaven. That means that everyone not a member of the Church of Christ was unsaved and destined for Hell. It made little sense to speak of political issues since everyone was going to Hell anyways. Abortion seemed like a pretty silly issue to get all excited about since both the mother and the doctor performing the abortion were bound for Hell. It had little to do with the act of murder. It had to do with the fact they neither would have been a member of the Church of Christ in good standing. That was true with most everything. People didn’t go to Hell because they were on drugs. They went to Hell because they were not members of the Church of Christ. When dealing with outsiders, nothing else really mattered.

We had a high view of scripture. That means we saw it as the perfectly transmitted words of God to be taken literally. It was the only truth worth knowing for all relevant matters of living. The creation versus evolution debate was incomprehensible to us. The bible said we were created by God in six days. Anything that disagreed with that was just stupidly wrong, perhaps even satanic. You bring your evidence. I’ll bring my bible. I win! You don’t believe in God? The bible says that only fools say there is no god. Therefore, you’re a fool. Why are we even talking? Life really was that simple for me. You were either one of us or you were kindling for Hell. I might put forth a little effort to try to save your miserable soul. But I wasn’t going to waste too much time casting my pearls before swines. To be clear, you would have been considered a swine. Don’t judge me too harshly. I was raised to think that way from birth. My parents were taught to raise their children that way. The regression is not infinite. But it’s close.

Other doctrinal quirks included singing a cappella in church. No musical accompaniment was allowed. This was not a matter of preference, but a matter of obeying God’s word. If you had instrumental accompaniment in church, you were clearly an enemy of God. We believed in taking the Lord’s Supper once a week, and collecting money as often as we could. We believed the only official positions in the church were elders and deacons. However, we also saw them as optional, making the preacher the de facto head of the congregation. We believed that church attendance was required every time the doors were opened. There were not really any optional services. It was a sign of spiritual weakness if you chose to be somewhere else when Wednesday night bible class was in session. Marriage was eternal. Divorce was only allowed in cases of infidelity. Formal education, especially secular education, was often disparaged. It should be sufficient to only know Christ, and him crucified, whatever that meant.

…and on it goes.

That is not just what I was raised to believe. That is who I was. That was my whole world. One year, I decided to live out my conviction that it was a sin to wear short pants in public. Don’t laugh. This was a huge issue in many churches back in the day. I was in grade school at the time, and in the athletics program. I was a wrestler. The school required dressing out in short pants, I refused and told them they could flunk me in PE. I made it very clear that I would obey God rather than man. I didn’t dress out. They flunked me in PE. Honor was satisfied. I carried a briefcase not a book satchel. I always had at least one bible with me, and wasn’t afraid to display it. In the fifth grade, I purposely gave religious answers on science tests because I refused to support the lie of evolution. I couldn’t be controlled or manipulated by teachers. I was self-possessed in ways that other students weren’t. Religion was one of the few things that really mattered to me. It was not just a mask I wore, but what I strove to be.


That overview will have to do for now. The important takeaway is that I was not just a church goer. I was a true believer, the truest of believers. I was more than a believer. I was a person of action. I put flesh on those beliefs. I read my bible, and every other religious text book I could get my hands on. I studied the same material read by graduate students. I did what few managed. I excelled in both black churches and white churches. I walked in both worlds as if I belonged, and I did. That was a rare gift. You may think yourself religious, but I was the real deal. I was smart, well placed, driven, and on my way with almost no obstacles in front of me. And that is where my real story begins…

David Johnson

The utter failure of evangelism, and what it says about the religious enterprise


For if that first covenant had been faultless, no one would have looked for a second one. But showing its fault, God says to them,

“Look, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will complete a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.

“It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not continue in my covenant and I had no regard for them, says the Lord.

“For this is the covenant that I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and I will inscribe them on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people.

“And there will be no need at all for each one to teach his countryman or each one to teach his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ since they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.

“For I will be merciful toward their evil deeds, and their sins I will remember no longer.”

When he speaks of a new covenant, he makes the first obsolete. Now what is growing obsolete and aging is about to disappear. Heb. 8:7-12

This passage is an indictment against everything we think we know about religious evangelism. For that reason, it is one of my favorite passages in all the bible. It starts by setting the stage. The old covenant is broken. If it were not, there would be no need for a second one. After that bold declaration, the writer outlines a particular way in which the new covenant is different. Dispensational theology suggests we are living in the second dispensation, under the second covenant right now. The Lord’s return will mark the third. The first was ended at the cross. We also separate the books of the bible along these dispensational lines. We speak of the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is the pre-Jesus, post-Jesus era. The first covenant was with the Jews. The second is with the followers of Christ. My point being that almost all Christians would say that we are living under the new covenant right now.

The writer is focused on the method of revelation. How do we receive God’s word. How do we know it is really him, and what he really wants from us. Acquiring that information is called revelation. Sharing it with someone else is called evangelism. The new covenant was to include a method of revelation that required no evangelism. According to the Lord, he would put his laws in our minds and inscribe them on our hearts. This is a great departure from the days when we were to do the writing and inscribing ourselves. There would be no more transcription errors, or interpretation errors, or transmission errors from one person to the next. From the least to the greatest, everyone would know the Lord. There would be no need for countryman or brethren to teach another about the Lord or his ways. There would be no more evangelism.

So what happened?

Here we are firmly entrenched in the second covenant. Yet the neighborhood sidewalks are dotted with white-shirted pairs going from house to house teaching the good news of the god of Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. Countrymen and brethren are still enlisting neighbors to attend the revival meeting that will introduce them to Jesus. Pamphleteers are still leaving small booklets about the Lord’s will for you on bus seats across the country. Pastors are desperate to offload some of the evangelistic burden onto their members. Evangelist campaigns range from door knocking to TV ads. One thing is for sure; even though done poorly, evangelism is alive and well.

Apparently, there is still a need to press the flesh, establish fake relationships, and tell strangers how to get to know the Lord. What does this mean. First, it means that the second covenant has failed just as badly as the first. Maybe we disappointed God yet again. Maybe he pulled out of the second covenant. He decided not to write his precious laws on our hearts after all. Perhaps he decided that writing them in an indecipherable book was sufficient. Or perhaps the indecipherable book was our idea, so he took his ball and went home. What ever the case, the evidence for the second covenant has not materialized. We never got the second covenant, and there was no mention of a third.

Second, our evangelistic efforts expose religion as a purely human enterprise. If you have to use the power of persuasion to sway me to your side, then it is you, and you alone who are doing the persuading, and it is wholly your cause. If you tell me about Jesus and I decline, that is not your failure, but God’s. If the message wasn’t compelling to me, then the message is at fault. God’s Spirit can work on my heart or not. It is his choice, and in his hands. If you persist, then you are insinuating yourself into the process. You are trying to persuade me for your purposes, not letting God’s word speak for itself. What if God selected me as a vessel of destruction? Who are you to try to persuade me to his cause? In this new covenant, God is supposed to communicate directly to me. How I respond to that is my business, not yours. No evangelism should be required if you really trusted God to do his business the way he sees fit.

Christians may counter that with the commissioned to go and preach the good news to every nation. That is simply not true. He gave that very specialized message to twelve people who were specifically called and trained for the purpose. You are not the 13th apostle who replaced Judas. Jesus did not spend three years in Arabia grooming you to take over apostle duties for the gentiles. Apostles like Paul and Peter groomed assistants like Mark and Luke. But at no point did they prepare an apostolic line of succession. When the apostles died, so did the office, and the associated power that went with it. There is no chapter in the bible about how to evangelize your neighbor. There is no how-to guide for getting people to come to church with you, or telling people about Christ. This does not exist for the very excellent reason that the new covenant was supposed to have eliminated the need. God has not enlisted you to tell others about him. Believing you are called to do such a thing is arrogant dilution bordering on narcissism. Stop it! Just stop it!

 Conclusion: feeling needed

As a kid, I learned about my calling. I was special. I had talent, and I was meant to do something important with it. God had a mission for me. He had some necessary job I was supposed to do. All I had to do was pay attention and watch for the signs. Obviously, some type of evangelism was a part of that calling. It was only natural that I would go into the preaching business. God needed me, and I felt needed. I didn’t become a salvation salesman because of my secret love of rejection. I did it for Jesus. He needed me, and I felt needed. I approached strangers and friends alike. I brought them to revivals, set up home bible studies, and did the one on ones. I personally baptized a few, and brought others to the point of baptism. I was answering my calling. I was needed, and I felt needed.

Today, I would not worship a god who needed someone like me for anything. I now realize I was working for my organization, not my god. We were concerned about lost members, not lost souls. This fact was brought home to me when I put in for a new position at a church I was attending. The powers that be really seemed to like the idea and were willing to pay me to do it. All I had to do was bring in a minimum of five new families as members. I could have done it. In the end, I refused to pursue it further. I couldn’t get past the dilemma a of evangelizing solely for the purpose of financial gain. For the first time I realized that evangelism was about lost revenue rather than lost souls. I never campaigned for Jesus after that. I no longer felt needed. I felt dirty.

Listen. Put down the pamphlet, the flyer, and the filmstrip you were planning on showing. Do not knock on that door or ask your friend if they would like to get to know your god. They don’t. Their god, or lack thereof is quite sufficient. Growing up, I was taught to believe that many people would burn in hell for all eternity because I didn’t take every opportunistic opening to sell them on the gospel as I knew it. There is a quiet desperation in evangelism that is more like a cry for help. Consider this an intervention.

David Johnson

Changed lives and the end of addiction


In part three of this series, I find myself turning to the crux of the matter. Miracles and magic tricks only sustain a person’s faith until the impact of the event wears off. After that, a person can convince herself that what she saw or felt or heard was just her overactive imagination. The real test of religious conversion is the changed life that continues as a testimony for all to see for as long as that life persists. This is the evidence that means the world: this one and the next.

I want to start with the biggest challenge for anyone attempting to change their lives for the better, addiction. When a person becomes a Christian, they are promised some sort of gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not quite clear what that gift entails. There is a broad range of disagreement on that matter within the church community, and even within any given faith tradition. One of the more commonly held beliefs is that the Spirit provides some sort of power to overcome sin. It makes holy living more of a reality, or at least puts it within the grasp of all believers who really want it.

A person struggling with sin is supposed to be able to come to God with a genuine desire to change, and faith that God will deliver. Repentance, genuine desire to change, and faith that can move mountains is supposed to be enough to get the job done. Apparently, it isn’t. To paraphrase something I used to hear as a kid, dry devils come up wet devils. Baptism seems to convey no protective barrier between a person and their propensity to sin, no matter how much they wish it otherwise.

Addiction is the ultimate sin trap. Once snared, a person will find it more than challenging to break free. Experience tells us that extricating one’s self from sin is simply beyond the capabilities of the average person. Breaking free requires one to be a superhuman human, or a recipient of superhuman intervention. That is where the Spirit comes in. Unfortunately, he doesn’t. It seems to make no difference if one finds addiction after his conversion or before. Addiction proves victorious over the most sincere repentance, and the most direct indwelling of the Spirit.

There are two passages in the bible about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that speak to this matter, yet seem to stand in direct oposition of each other. The first one seems to suggest that the Spirit can overcome the wiles of the devil. The second portrays the Holy Spirit as a powerless passenger in the saved, human body:

By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God, and this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and have conquered them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 1Jn. 4:2-4

Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never! And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.” But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him. 1Cor. 6:15-17

If temptation is the devil’s tool, then one having an indwelling of the Holy Spirit should have no problem fending it off because greater is he that is within. But that was from the one writing under the name of John. Paul took great exception to that notion. You are completely in control of the body; the Spirit has nothing to do with what you do or how you behave. It just seems to be along for the ride. Depending on your proclivities, it’s going to be a very wild ride for the Spirit of God.

What hope is there for the person who is addicted to drugs, or worse? John, at least, offers hope that the indwelling Spirit of God is greater than the addiction. Paul puts all the onus on the afflicted who is obviously incapable of freeing himself. If the addict has no hope, who does? Which sin problems stand a chance of being cured by the spirit? Seeing an addict at church trying to conquer he addiction is like seeing a person in a wheelchair faithfully attending a healing church. The amount of cognitive dissonance is too much to bear.

In my decades of faithful service to God, I never found even the most minor sin to be easily dispatched. I received no supernatural assistance with my struggles. My prayer to, “Create in me a clean heart, oh God” fell on deaf ears. My index of good, clean living is no less as a non-believer than it was as a believer. Had there been some observable difference in my own life, that would have meant a lot. The bible tells us that we will be known by our fruits. If that is truly the case, then there are no Christians. The only fruits I see from all the Christians I know are just the fruits of people trying to make it in this world using their best, purely human efforts. I also see plenty of good fruits coming from non-believers.

What also would have meant a lot would have been to see a measurably higher level of the clean living index in the lives of my fellow sojourners in The Lord. At no point did that happen. The pews were full of wet devils, as we used to say. The more I knew about the real lives of pious believers, the harder it was for me to ignore the fact that nobody was experience any kind of life-changing conversion that registered in overall behavior. Whatever power The Lord of the Flies had over people before they gave themselves to Jesus, was the same power he had afterwards. That alone, is reason enough to reconsider the entire faith proposition.

David Johnson

The inconsistent requirement of faith

I Love You Breakfast Message

Why is it that some are given ample, miraculous evidence to believe, while others are required to have faith without evidence? That is what I mean by the inconsistent requirement of faith. Every important figure in the bible received some sort of faith-abrogating sign from god that removed any doubt about whom they were dealing with and what they should do about it. From Abraham to the lowliest follower of Jesus, people were inundated with signs and wonders acted directly on them, or in their presence. These people could choose to follow or not follow God. But they didn’t have to deal with the paralyzing decision to believe or disbelieve in his existence.

It does not end there. Every other believer seems convinced that they, themselves, have experienced a miracle of some kind or other. They have been healed. They have heard his voice. They have received supernatural guidance. They have seen a vision or dreamed a dream. Their bowl of cereal told them in no uncertain terms that Jesus loves them. They have had some sort of experience that makes it very clear that God is real, and active and their lives. Let’s just pretend that all of those experiences are legitimate. Why should they receive confirmation of God’s presence while others such as me must be content to believe without a shred of empirical or experiential evidence?

If Moses can receive a special visitation from God, where’s my visitation? Where’s my vision? Where are the holy voices in my head? Where’s my healing? Where’s my magic power? It seems to me that those who have received some sort of confirming experience have no right to preach to anyone about faith without sight. That is like a married man with twelve children and 72 virgin mistresses, preaching about fidelity and celibacy. By what right do any of the biblical authors demand faith without sight?

Had I been chosen to receive this special dispensation of experience so freely given to others, I would possibly still be on the side of the angels. Since it is clear that I am required to believe in that which I cannot experience, then I have little choice but to end up where I am. I have no desire to worship a god who requires some to have blind faith, while giving his favorites a peek behind the curtain.

David Johnson

A few extra chapters…


(This piece started out with a long conversation and a challenge. My friend, Andrew and challenged each other to come up with a list of at least five items that in our opinions, would have served the bible well to include. There are a couple of things common between the lists. Rather than combine the lists as if they were written by one hand, I will include both in their entirety. His contribution will follow the subheading, Addendum

What would it have taken to have kept me on as a believer instead of the enemy of religions faith that I have become? It’s an interesting question, and one that I fully intend to explore in more detail. Consider this the first of several such posts. For me, the main tool for belief is the bible. In my faith experience, the bible turned out to be a critical point of failure. Had I been raised Catholic, I would have a couple of fallback positions when the bible proved unreliable. But instead, I was razed to believe that the bible was the inerrant word of God, and the only authority on which right thinking faith should be based. Perhaps if the bible had a few more chapters, it would not have failed me.

The chapter on the virgin birth

Only two of the biblical writers bother to mention the virgin birth. Neither of them was the first writer. The only person who would have known about that birth would have been Mary. She wrote no books, nor dictated any in her name. Luke would not have known her. And it seems highly unlikely that she would have confided in Matthew, but not John: the beloved apostle who was like a son to her. Yet even the clearly fabricated details about the birth are rather sparse. What was it like to be physically entered by the Holy Spirit? Did she get pleasure from the experience. Joseph sure had a lot to live up to after that. The Catholics solve the problem by suggesting that he never tried, and that Mary remained a virgin, despite the other kids the bible says she had.

How long did the pregnancy last? Did she have morning sickness? Was it a painful birth? Was there a need for any recovery time. Inquiry minds want to know. More than any of those things, it seems like those closest to the situation would have found that miraculous birth something worth writing about. Neither Paul, Peter, John, nor James seemed to know anything about it, or if they did, didn’t think it was very important. Consider the implications of the story. If there was no virgin birth, then Jesus was just another man, in no way a god-man. Christianity as we know it ends right there. Resurrection is a neat trick to be sure, but it had already been done several times before. Literally born of God seed, now that’s a miracle worth writing about. The apostles could have spent a little time on that event.

The Chapter on Paul’s time with Jesus

Paul casually mentions that he spent time with Jesus after his ascension. It was done in the space of a couple of verses, and left us guessing about key details. Was it in Arabia? Was it over the course of three years? Was anyone else present, or was Paul the only one who saw Jesus in this second incarnation? Paul’s authority for considering himself an apostle was based on him being taught by Jesus directly. I would think that Jesus coming back to earth for the purpose of teaching one man the ropes would be pretty big news.

How did the apostles who had been with Jesus take this news? According to Paul, they were cool with it. None of them asked for any corroboration or proof of this encounter. None of the other writers ever discussed the time when Jesus came back to earth to make a new apostle. Even Paul never mentions any details about it. Paul also never produces any notes he may have taken in that three years of having the Lord’s undivided attention? What questions did he ask, and what answers did Jesus give? Did Jesus really spend all that time teaching Paul about church organization? At the very least, we could use another chapter or two on that.

The Chapter on the Great Resurrection

In one verse, Matthew drops the equivalent of an atom bomb that left no reverberations. In one verse, he tells us everything we will ever know about an event that took place after the resurrection of Jesus. In Jerusalem, the graves opened and gave up their dead. Oh, and the temple curtain was torn when Jesus died. It seems Mark, the first gospel writer heard about the temple curtain, but knew nothing about the Great Resurrection. As it happens, neither did anyone else. Save for one verse, the bible is completely silent on this event. I’m pretty sure the city would have been packed with visitors there fro passover. How is it that the apostles heard about the resurrection of Jesus, but heard nothing about the resurrection of all of Jerusalem’s dead?

There is no indication that they were taken into Heaven, or were sent back to their graves. You just have a bunch of people who were dead, and now they were not. Paul should have had at least one companion he introduced as, “my friend who arose from the grave just a few years ago”. Is it possible that not one of these people became disciple of note? None of them ever presented themselves before the courts and got into trouble with the conservatives? Not one of them ever rated a mention by any of the people who contributed to the bible? Really? Really?

The chapter about what it was like to hang around Jesus

If you spent three years with Jesus, especially the last three years of his life during the most important time of his life, do you think you may have snapped a few candids, or shared a few stories? Apparently, none of the apostles did. Paul was supposed to have spent time with Jesus. Yet there is no mention of personal details about the time they spent together. Peter, John, and James are equally silent on the life and adventures of their friend. We know that Paul had a favorite belt and a favorite coat. Why don’t we know this about Jesus. Did Paul really think the world would care more about his personal life than that of Jesus?

James, the brother of Jesus, fills all of zero pages with his fond remembrances of the time he spent with his big brother. It seems natural that James would have at least recounted the time when he came to believe in his brother as Lord and Christ. Perhaps they had one conversation that would prove inspirational. The book of James is not written like it came from someone who grew up in the same house as Jesus. At the least, this represents a few missing chapters.

The chapter that explains what happens next

In a rare fit of straightforwardness, Jesus explains to his disciples what to expect from the end times. The explanation leave no doubt that he was talking about events that would happen in their lifetimes. The only problem is that their lifetimes came and went without the return of the Son of Man. There are apostolic writings that hint at their belief that the end would come in their lifetimes. Some of Paul’s followers were taken by this question, and were led to believe that the end would be soon, perhaps in their lifetimes. Amazingly, we’re still here, and they’re not.

There was no Christian bible at the time. It was decades after the death of Jesus before anyone started writing about the events of his life. No one was left with any clear instruction, or provided any useful expectations. The bible closes without addressing the end of miracles or apostolic succession. Did James and Peter have apprentices? What would be the criteria for replacing them? Were they supposed to be replaced? When he original church planters died out, were there to be more churches planted? By whom? How? Knowing that the religion would be around for at least another two-thousand years, why is there no addendum for the people at various future times? Some instructions on not going through with the Inquisition would have been nice.

We are left with a closed canon, and nowhere to go from there. With only the bible to follow, we are bound by the temporal nature of its instructions. We are left with instructions on what they were supposed to do in particular situations relevant only to them. We have no guidance on how to do church in the 21st century. There is no chapter on smooth transitions from one generation of leadership to another. It would have been nice to believe that the bible was timeless and forward-thinking.


The Bible: The Forever Missing Manual

In the information technology arena, there is a popular series with the subtitle “The Missing Manual”. These books provide insight into products whose manuals are either missing or incomplete. While it is not at all politic to ask what is missing from the bible, it is instructive to consider elements that are not found. The following list contains elements that I believe should be included to make the story compelling to individuals.

What Did James Know?

As the brother of Jesus, James had a unique perspective on the figure of the King of the Jews. What do we not find? James does not record any event leading up to the ministry of Jesus. There is no discussion of leaving home, how Jesus’ parents would be impacted, no talk of coping with potential hardship, nor of the desire to recruit and dangers of recruiting others to the divine plan. After the resurrection, James does not record a tender moment between brothers stolen during the doubtless tumultuous period of days before the ascension. It might be argued that these moments were not critical or would not have contained material essential to salvation. However, treatment of family, coping with hardship, and the meaning of the resurrection and its importance cannot be overlooked. Without these topics, what would be left in the bible. Well, the remainder would be a list of vast atrocities that defy explanation.

What Was Missing at the Cross?

John 21:25 leaves us with the knowledge that much more about the life of Jesus is not know than that which is known. That is, the world could not contain the books needed to describe all his life and works. Surely however, Christianity would benefit from the Psalms of Jesus or the Proverbs of Christ. Without these, generations of Christians identify more with Paul, Peter, and James than Jesus. Surely the Teachers words are more to be valued than the student.

We Have Teaching Without Structure.

The area of Biblical hermeneutics is mirky and vague, particularly as it pertains to the New Testament though the Old Testament cannot be said to be clear. We have in Romans 1 a list of sins, We have in Revelation a list of churches. We have in Timothy a list of qualifications for elders. Where is our list of principles for interpretation? Give us a discrete list for systematic theology. We want but cannot “rightly divide” the holy word.

The Words of the Father Are Missing.

As the earthly father of Jesus, we know nothing of Joseph. While he is not the biological father, according to tradition, of Jesus, he was found adequate to the earthly task and apparently proved himself so when Mary was found pregnant. Today, we have an entire generation of young people in this circumstance. The challenges here are unique and the words of Joseph would benefit the world. God must have known this “in the beginning”.

David Johnson