From Skeptic To Believer

The Rev. Eric Huffman preaching at The Story Church in Houston. Photo courtesy of The Story.

By Eric Huffman –

Finding the drawer full of teeth was the point of no return along my journey into cynicism. I was eight or nine years old when, while ransacking my mom’s bedside table in search of loose change because the ice cream truck was fast approaching, I happened upon a plastic bag with almost a dozen familiar baby teeth. My teeth. The teeth my mom swore the Tooth Fairy so desperately wanted. What was I supposed to believe now – that the Tooth Fairy swiped those teeth from under my pillow and then left them in Mom’s drawer? That’s ridiculous, I reasoned. Why would the Tooth Fairy pay me good money for teeth and then turn around and give them to Mommy?

Something wasn’t adding up. After running through all the possible scenarios in my head – Mommy bought my teeth back from the Tooth Fairy, Mommy stole my teeth from the Tooth Fairy, Mommy is the Tooth Fairy – logic led me to one painfully obvious conclusion. Mommy lied about the Tooth Fairy.

Looking back, I think a switch flipped in my heart that day; from then on, I was paranoid about all things supernatural. I became the preeminent anti-Santa crusader in my fourth-grade class. My school occasionally invited magicians to entertain the student body, but while other kids seemed to enjoy the swindler’s tricks, I overanalyzed every sleight-of-hand until I could debunk them all.

Amplified by adolescence, my cynical edge grew louder and meaner in the 1990s. Most people were shocked when they heard that the guys from Milli Vanilli were lip-syncing the whole time, but not me. I knew something wasn’t right about those guys. And when the obviously guilty Hall of Fame running back got off scot-free after killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend? I called it. When others were scandalized by the proliferation of steroids in our national pastime, I wore my Sammy Sosa jersey with pride. Who cares? Everybody was doing it. And when the president lied about what he did in the Oval Office with the intern in that blue dress? So what? Politicians lie all the time.

Just like my mom, about the Tooth Fairy. 

The only reason I’m telling you this is so you’ll understand my about-face in writing a book in defense of the whole Bible. There are so many reasons not to put stock in a three-thousand year-old religious book full of miracles and outdated rules, especially since it’s been translated hundreds of times and we don’t have a single original copy.

I’ve spent my whole life with the Bible. As a kid, I believed it because I was told that’s what the best kids do. In college, I rejected it because I was told that’s what the brightest students do. In my twenties, I used the parts that supported my leftist politics, and I ignored all the rest. Over the years, I have evolved from a snarky, cynical, social justice warrior to believe that the Bible is perfect and true.

I became a Christian when I was thirty-four, a full thirteen years after becoming a pastor. “How does one become a pastor without being a Christian?” I hear you asking. It was pretty simple, really. 

I lied.

I grew up in rural northeast Texas, also known as the buckle of the Bible Belt. My dad is a pastor, and so were my grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather before him. My entire life has revolved around my small-town Methodist church, and I was the poster boy for straitlaced, cookie-cutter, red-blooded American Christianity.

Then I went off to college and married the cutest Christian girl I could find, and between my junior and senior years, I accepted the first ministry job that came my way. At twenty-one years of age, and for a salary of $16,000 a year, I became the pastor of Mooringsport Methodist Church in northern Louisiana. No one who knew me was surprised by my life’s trajectory. Goody two-shoes small-town preacher’s kid gets married young and becomes a pastor was precisely the path my friends and family had predicted for me.

But there was one problem. During the year prior, under the guidance of two particularly persuasive professors, I had come to the conclusion that Christianity was – like all other religions – a man-made construct designed to fool gullible peasants into submission by playing on their fears of death and damnation. 

For the next thirteen years, I did and said what I had to in order to play the part of a pastor. 

But did I truly believe in the foundational promises of God as presented in Scripture? Did I believe that the God of Israel is the one and only true God? Or that Moses actually parted the Red Sea? Or that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? Or that Jesus physically rose from the dead? Or that anything in the Book of Revelation makes any sense whatsoever?

Nope.

To my skeptical eyes, the Bible looked no different than any other old, religious text. I assumed it was written by religious men for the purpose of maintaining social order. Cynical to the core, I figured, What better way to manipulate the masses than with the promise of eternal paradise as a reward for good behavior and the threat of unrelenting hellfire for those who get out of line?

So why would someone with such disdain for religious conformity enlist to become a clergyman? In a word, politics. As a left-leaning activist with a chip on my shoulder, I found the Bible to be a familiar and formidable weapon in the war against what I perceived to be conservative Christian bigotry. Cherry-picking verses that supported my pro-immigration, LGBTQ+ inclusion, semi-socialist views became my favorite pastime. I suppose it never occurred to me how convenient it was to leave out all the other parts – passages about personal repentance, sexual holiness, and Jesus’s mandate to “make disciples of all nations.” I enjoyed sarcastically reminding cranky, white evangelicals that Jesus said to love your enemies and that they’re supposed to love Iraqis and gays and abortion doctors.

Of course I never stopped to consider my own hypocrisy: conservative Christians were my mortal enemies, but I felt no love for them. If I believed in hell back then, I would’ve told them to go there. 

Internally, I was falling apart: depressed, isolated, and struggling with a porn addiction. I knew I couldn’t keep living a lie forever, so I went to law school for a year and a half, until I realized that to become a big-shot lawyer you have to be even more duplicitous than a pastor with no faith. I was stuck until late 2012 when, out of nowhere, an activist friend named Andrea asked me if I had ever been to the Holy Land. When I told her that I had not, she said, “You need to see with your own eyes how the Zionists are abusing the Palestinians; I’m going to find a way to get you over there.” Nine months later, thanks to Andrea and several other friends, I found myself exploring the land that gave rise to the Bible.

In Capernaum, I died. My old, divided life passed away the day I stood near the ancient house on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee where first-generation Christians began to worship in the years following Jesus’s death. My friend who was with me is an archaeology enthusiast, and he taught me how, on the walls of that ancient house-church, archaeologists discovered graffiti that reads, “God Jesus Christ” and “Christ have mercy.” That part didn’t surprise me; I knew Christians had been calling Jesus their “God” ever since the days of Emperor Constantine’s famous Edict of Milan.

But then he said, “Those engravings have been dated to the first half of the first century AD,” and my ontological foundations began to tremble beneath me. One of my favorite weapons to use against evangelical Christians was the argument that Jesus’s divinity was a later amendment to the original biblical narrative. My professors insisted that upgrading Jesus from a failed apocalyptic prophet to the one true God in the flesh was nothing more than politics, the sort of power play commonly found in the history of human religions.

What does it mean, then, that this graffiti was scratched onto those walls at least two hundred sixty-three years before the Edict of Milan, not to mention decades prior to Mark writing the first Gospel? It means that the people who knew Jesus best – his friends, followers, and even his own flesh and blood – worshiped him as their God, and not just while he was alive, but even after he died on the cross. 

I knew enough about Jewish scriptures and beliefs to be certain that, for any self-respecting Jew, worshiping a man was off-limits. In the Old Testament, not even Abraham, Moses, or Elijah were worthy of worship. The rule against worshiping mere men sits atop the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3). But the faithful Jews who walked with Jesus, some of whom watched him die, worshiped him and called him God, and many of them died for this heretical, treasonous belief.

That day in Capernaum, I was faced with history’s most consequential question: Was Jesus just a man, or is he truly God? After weighing the evidence and searching my heart, I came to the conclusion that it is more likely than not that Jesus is who he – and his followers – said he was: Emmanuel, God with us.

Making that decision was relatively easy; figuring out what to do about it was the tricky part. If Jesus is God, I knew I would have to revisit the Bible. For thirteen years, every time I opened that book, I expected to find something to disagree with, something to hate. But once I realized that Jesus loved the Bible, that he never criticized or contradicted it, and that he quoted it often, I knew I had more work to do. I couldn’t continue calling Jesus my God while feeling such animosity toward his Word.

Perfect God & Imperfect People. Christians believe the people who wrote the Bible were inspired by God; in  fact, we think every word of Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). That does not mean, however, that we believe the entire Bible fell from heaven as a finished product in the King’s English, gilded pages and all. It means that God inspired all the stories, laws, songs, and prophecies that make up our Scriptures as they were being written, and he still inspires them now as they are being read.

The divine inspiration of Scripture does not preclude the fact that God’s perfect message for the world passed through human filters. You can’t read the Bible without seeing its raw humanity; the sporadic examples of textual discrepancies, the occasional shocking misogyny, and the examples of extreme violence leap off its pages. This undeniable fact terrifies biblically insecure Christians, but we should never see the humanity of Scripture as a threat to its veracity.

The question is not whether the human element sullies the original Word of God; instead, we should be asking, “Does the humanity of Scripture damage its integrity?”

I don’t believe it does. Before I became a Christian, I used what I thought were flaws in the Bible to poke holes in the Truth claims that Christians hold dear. I would question, for example, why the four Gospel writers disagree on the order of events in Jesus’s life. Did Jesus famously turn over the tables in the Temple toward the end of his life, as Matthew and Mark suggest, or was it at the very beginning of his ministry, like John says? Luke says there were two angels in Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning. Matthew and Mark say there was one. And John, the only Gospel writer who was actually at Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning, didn’t mention the presence of any angels at all. 

I used to think these obvious discrepancies represented the proverbial nail in the coffin for the Bible. No thinking person could ever accept this internally inconsistent collection of ancient books as authoritative or divinely inspired, right?

It’s just not that simple. Once my life changed in Capernaum, I began to revisit some of my deepest doubts about the Bible, and I felt compelled to start asking better questions. Instead of “Why would a perfect God write such an imperfect book?” I started asking, “If the standard of biblical truth was the absolute absence of discrepancies, why didn’t the early Christians ever ‘clean up’ the scriptures?” 

Generations of believers had plenty of opportunities to dispose of the minor discrepancies within the Gospel stories with some careful editing, so why didn’t they take advantage?

Maybe worshiping a perfect book was never the point for Christians because, while the Bible’s inerrancy makes for fiery conversations and controversial books, we know that a holy book – perfect though it may be – can never save a single soul because a book can’t show us how to live. Only a person can do that. 

The Bible is the story of the only perfect human. The lack of discrepancies and minor historical flaws isn’t what makes the Bible perfect; the Bible is perfect because of Jesus: God’s perfect gift for this imperfect world.

It’s the Bible’s humanity that speaks to my skeptical heart. Any holy book claiming to be anything other than human-filtered is a fraud from the start. It’s not the human element, but the supposed lack of it, that negates the sacredness of any so-called sacred text. 

Anything short of a humanized holy book is mere magic, the stuff of fairy tales we tell restless children until they finally give up and go to sleep, or worse: the stuff of false religions we preach to restless adults until they do.The only Bible worth believing is both God-breathed and human-filtered.

The only God worth trusting is the Son of Man.

The message that matters most is God’s love for all humanity.

Even for you and me.

Eric Huffman is the founder and lead pastor of The Story Church in Houston and host of the Maybe God Podcast. He is the author of Scripture and the Skeptic: Miracles, Myths, and Doubts of Biblical Proportions (Abingdon). This article is an excerpt of Scripture and the Skeptic and is used by permission.  

Comments

  1. C.A. Buster says

    And our love for Him is obedience to His commandments. 1 John 5:2, 2 John 6

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