A few times on this blog I've alluded to the response my wife and I received from the PCA church we were active members of at the time of our deconversion. Outside of work and home, it was pretty much our world. I've also mentioned that not a single person from that church remained friends with us in any meaningful sense. At least one former good friend stated he would never set foot in my house or even meet with me in person until we repented. Others unfriended us on Facebook. A couple of my wife's friends seemed to be willing to at least correspond, but they said they needed some time first. That was three years ago.
I saved nearly all of the correspondence we received during that period. I've been hesitant to share much of it on this blog, but I recently had a conversation with someone who was privy to some of the things that were communicated to the congregation of the church by the session of elders in the aftermath of our departure. Based on that person's recollections, it would seem the elders told the congregation not to interact with us lest we poison them. In light of that unsurprising revelation, I've decided to publish the exchanges I had with the elders, the details of which they no doubt withheld from the congregants. I've redacted names and places. Mainly I'm excluding them so people performing Internet searches on those specific names won't end up getting linked here.
In retrospect, now three years removed from these exchanges, I think it was a mistake to allow the elders and the senior pastor in particular to control the narrative fully in the way we did. If I had to do it all over again, I might be tempted to avoid phone conversations, stick strictly to email interactions, and then cc everyone in the church directory on the entire exchange so they could see for themselves how it all went down. Something like that had briefly crossed my mind, but I never seriously considered it. At the time I didn't want to risk burning bridges, nor did I want to fit into the narrative of being out to deliberately hurt people. In the end, the elders were going to burn plenty of bridges for us so it didn't really matter.
For those who may not be aware, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) practices church discipline in the Reformed Protestant tradition. For many Christians this is probably a foreign concept and when I describe it to people, they often find it alarming. Even most of the evangelicals I've discussed it with seemed to find it cult-like and bizarre. Of course, one Christian's "cult-like and bizarre" is another's "Biblically faithful." In the case of church discipline, it certainly looks like the New Testament is on the PCA's side here. I'm not going to flesh out a biblical case for church discipline or denounce fluffy denominations that take a much more "hands off" approach to their members. It's just important to know that the PCA treats church discipline almost like a sacrament and considers practicing it to be one of the marks of a True Church™.
My wife and I knew what we were getting into when we joined this church. Even though we were leaving our Southern Baptist church in good standing, we still had to take an introductory class, meet with members of the session of elders, and stand before the church and take solemn vows. Even so, as is the case many religious organizations, getting out still proved to be much more of a hassle than getting in.
We didn't know at the time that we could have made it easier on ourselves. Instead we naively assumed that because we had taken these vows that we had to go through the whole church discipline process. We did not realize that all we had to do was submit a letter stating "we are withdrawing our membership" and then simply let them know we wanted no further communication with them on the matter. For them to take disciplinary action after that would've opened them up to a potential tort, as they would have been taking such actions against people who were no longer members of their organization. The courts in this country have repeatedly said that's a big no-no, despite their reluctance to involve themselves in ecclesiastical matters.
In 1992, for example, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in Hadnot v Shaw that, "At the point when the church‐member relationship is severed through an affirmative act of either a parishioner's withdrawal or excommunication by the ecclesiastical body, a different situation arises. In the event of withdrawal or of post‐excommunication activity . . . the absolute privilege from tort liability no longer attaches."
Basically, a church has First Amendment protections to practice church discipline free from being sued up to the point a member withdraws their membership. Action taken after that time in the name of church discipline runs the risk of landing them in court. As church liability insurer Brotherhood Mutual tells its policyholders: "Church discipline should never apply to anyone who is not clearly and voluntarily affiliated with the church." Note to future apostates: it might be helpful to remind a church of that fact if you think they might be tempted to pursue action after you withdraw your membership.
That said, as you will see, the only real punishment the church leaders could dish out was refusing to give us any of their cheap wine and thin bread wafers and telling the congregation to shun us and avoid us. Aside from that, all the other punishments they administered existed solely in their imaginations.
On some level, my wife and I also chose the difficult path because we did not want to give the appearance that we were running scared. Simply withdrawing our membership and cutting everyone off would've permitted all kinds of speculation. Additionally, we were friends with most of these folks and naively thought that some of those friendships might survive. Even after it all went down we still held out hope and waited over a year before we finally grew tired of being shunned and simply moved to another community in the same metropolitan area so we could get a fresh start and forge new relationships.
We did not want to give the impression that we were trying to pick off weaker members of the church by going behind the elders' backs. While we were waiting for a good opportunity to drop the bomb, I was still teaching a Wednesday night youth boys Bible study and was in the regular rotation for teaching adult Sunday School. I could've used those platforms to plant seeds of doubt, but instead I took great pains to insure I kept all of my teaching in conformity to the church's confessional standards. I even took the step of calling on others to pray in those situations rather than doing it myself and I avoided framing anything as my own opinion or belief on a subject. We even waited until the senior pastor returned from sabbatical so the newly-ordained associate pastor would not be thrust into this. We chose instead to confront the organization head-on at the top. Even before we told our families, we would go directly to the session first.
My wife and I chose as the first people to whom we would reveal our unbelief a couple that we had been friends with very early on at the church. They were close in age to us and had a couple of kids that were close in age to our own, adding another later. Both seemed pretty level-headed and were not as hardcore into Reformed culture as some of the other folks in the church. Of all the members of the session, he was the most grounded in reality and always seemed to strike a good balance between pragmatism and doctrinal fidelity. On the list of people we hoped to remain friends with, this couple was certainly towards the top. Since he was an elder, giving our letter to him along with speaking with them on our own terms would allow us a means to inform the session and try to lay the groundwork for forging our friendship with them on different terms.
So on the fateful evening of Tuesday, November 6th, 2012, the night of the general election, we had this couple over for dinner. I was very late because the person who was driving the car pool that week had car trouble. This left my anxious wife there stalling until I got home around the time they were finishing up dessert. When I arrived, we sat down and told them we were leaving the church and why. They assured us that no matter what happened they saw no reason why we could no longer be friends and we would always be invited in their home. As it turned out, other than my wife reaching out to her via email and her replying that she needed some more time, neither has communicated with us since. That was a pretty heavy blow for us.
They left with the following letter from us in hand to be delivered to the rest of the session:
In spite of the fact that we had asked for a week before contacting us to discuss things and receiving assurances from the elder we originally spoke with that he would do his best to keep things a bay for awhile, at 9:03 AM on Wednesday 11/7, a mere 12 hours after giving him the letter, we received the following email from the senior pastor with our "shepherding elder" cc'd:
Note how he opened with an attack by accusing us of the personal betrayal of Jesus Christ. Of course, he was projecting his own feelings of betrayal, but by making it about Jesus, he doubtless felt this added weight to it. He moved from there to pointing out that not only had this upset him, but it had also upset his wife. His wife is a wonderful, kind, caring, loving person (seriously, she really is) and we were hurting her and he wanted us to know it. He'll pull this out again later.
He followed that with a thinly-veiled accusation that it was not really both of us that had pulled out. Despite the fact that my wife had done most of the talking when we spoke with the other elder, the pastor would remain unconvinced that we are united on this. That is, until Mrs. Apostate chimed in on the correspondence later.
The insinuations and attacks didn't end there. He moved to trying to guilt us for not coming to him or one of the other elders earlier. You'll see he brought this up repeatedly, though it changed from implying that it was a misstep on our part to insinuating it was a deliberate act of avoidance and even sneaky subversion. He concluded by saying what he was going to do is all about love and for good measure, he threw our kids in there.
It was Wednesday morning. He said he wanted to meet with us on Saturday or Sunday. We specifically asked for a week before being contacted and he had not only contacted us, but he wanted to meet with us within the very time frame we had set aside to drop this on our families. So much for holding him a bay. It's important to understand that our families moved in close circles with many of the folks we went to church with. Word was going to get out quickly and we did not want our devout parents hearing about this second-hand. In retrospect, we probably should've done that first. Take note, future apostates.
About 15 minutes later the pastor followed his email with:
Why? Did he think he was so awesome that he was going to talk us out of this so there was no need to involve our parents? By the way, kids, if a religious leader ever tells you to withhold something like this from your own family, politely decline the request. I suggest employing an expletive phrase in which you invite him to go have sex with himself. Run away quickly. That is a sign you are dealing with a cult. Period.
I'm left to conclude that he either thought he could persuade us to return to the fold so there was no need to trouble our parents, or he was trying to limit our interactions with anyone else as much as possible to contain the outbreak. I wanted very badly to think it was the former, but as the interactions unfolded, it became increasingly more apparent that it was the latter. Just to clarify, I still think much of this stuff was reactionary and not calculated and deliberate, but I do think religious organizations are structured in such a way so that these self-preserving reactions become automatic. The meme has survived for thousands of years for a reason.
Around lunchtime that day, we received a "me too" email from our shepherding elder:
Oh, snap. He went Greek on us. It's not just love, y'all. It's phileo.
These guys were trying their best. Really, they were. Even now, it's hard for me to impute sinister motives. They were my friends, which probably made this even more problematic. Note to churches: you should really think about outsourcing dealing with apostates to other people. Maybe partner up with sister churches and agree to handle each other's apostates or something. The session would have at least been better served to deliberate first and appoint two other guys, any two other guys, to be on point than these two. Any other two members of the session would've been better. In fairness, though, this was new territory for all of them.
My wife and I discussed it and decided that in spite of their unwillingness to respect our request for a week's worth of staying the hell away from us, we could agree to a weekend meeting. At this point we were still under the mistaken notion that the session could keep this under wraps until we could meet with our parents. We were beginning to wonder if that timetable might be shrinking, though.
I emailed the two of them with the following reply Wednesday afternoon:
Now, I want to point out that while our first letter to the session may have been vague, this one was pretty unambiguous in its expression that we no longer considered ourselves a part of the organization. While I didn't use the specific words, "we have withdrawn our membership," I did state fairly unequivocally, "we no longer consider ourselves under your authority in any way." At the very least at that point we were no longer "clearly and voluntarily affiliated with the church," to borrow Brotherhood Mutual's legalese. From a legal perspective, they were treading on dangerous ground from there on out. Of course, none of us likely knew that at the time. The session had a practicing attorney and a law professor sitting on it, but we were dealing with the professional theologian and the home improvement contractor.
As you will see, this change in dynamic would never be recognized. It's kind of ironic because one of the principal components of the same Greek concept of philia that one of them referred to earlier is equality. It should become evident that we were never treated as equals in this interaction, though, as we were condescended to as subordinates throughout.
That night, as we tried to figure out schedules of when we could sit down with our family members and discuss our apostasy before word got out, we received a phone call from a random church member asking if we could swap one of our assigned duties. Apparently she was prompted because the church secretary had been calling around all day to find people to fill in for a duty that was six weeks away. This was completely unnecessary at this point. It hadn't even been 24 hours and already more people than just the members of the session and their wives were in the loop. This placed even more pressure on us to arrange meetings with our families as soon as possible. I ended up calling my stepfather while he was out of town on a hunting trip so he could return to be at my mother's side when I broke the news because I didn't feel it could wait any longer.
That Friday afternoon I sent the following letter to the senior pastor and cc'd phileo elder guy:
We heard nothing after that and had no idea if they would even show up until Saturday morning at 8:30 when we received the following:
They arrived at our house separately, the first to arrive waiting in his truck. They walked up the walkway, and as we waited in our living room we could see them through the front windows kneeling at our doorstep to pray before knocking. It was strange to us and we couldn't help but be amused. What they saw as petitioning the God of the universe to dispel the demonic forces and turn our hearts back to the truth, we saw as attempting to cast magic spells from the threshold of our house. I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that we shared a good chuckle at their expense. OK, I'm not ashamed. It was funny.
Content that they had sufficiently prepared for this battle with unseen powers, they knocked and we let them in. The senior pastor did most of the talking, of course. He relayed that he was just there to hear from us. We told the two of them of the events that led up to our no longer believing. We laid out several of the many reasons, but he later seemed to focus only on one of the items I had mentioned that sparked my questioning, mistakenly thinking somehow that this was merely the linchpin that had fallen out, rather than the goad that set me off on my journey.
They asked if we had found another religion. I believe the metaphor was that we had jumped out of the ship, but had we climbed into another one? We said we had not. We had no god-belief. He asked if we would consider ourselves agnostic and I replied that was a fair description. We were not operating with the same definition of "agnostic" at the time, as will later become evident. Why is it that so many believers are so quick to assume that "I'm agnostic" means, "I just haven't heard the right pitch of your brand of bullshit yet; but if I did, I might be persuaded to believe in the existence of your particular version of a god"? In retrospect, we should've clarified that when it came to his specific god, we were most decidedly atheists.
It's been over three years since this conversation took place, but one of my vivid recollections is the pastor telling me that from his perspective the devil had his claws in my mind. I didn't get the impression that he meant it in some sort of broad, metaphorical sense either. I remember thinking how honored I felt that the supreme embodiment of evil on earth, the Prince of the Power of the Air himself, thought little ol' me worthy of taking time out of his busy schedule of conducting operations in the Obama administration and running the National Football League just so that he could sink his invisible claws into my mind. Truly, I'm not worthy.
The pastor said he had answers to all of my objections, of course, but since he was only there to listen he wasn't going to offer any rebuttals. He was supremely confident in his theological prowess, though he wasn't going to whip it out for us to behold in all its magnificent glory just yet. Once again, he brought up the subject of why we didn't come to him first when we started having questions about the veracity of Christianity and insinuated some kind of sinister motives on our part. I explained to him that my critical investigation of truth claims had made me suspect of partisan motives and my own confirmation bias.
Aside from that, behind him on my bookshelf was literally thousands of pages of exposition, commentary, apologetics, systematic theologies, etc.; all from a Christian perspective. Was he going to tell me that he was better-equipped to handle my inquiry than the collective works of two-thousand years worth of writing from theological giants? I wasn't reading Dick and Jane. Did he think he was dealing with average Joe pew-dweller here? Did he not recall that he had personally guided me through weighty theological works during my elder-training and that I had been administered the presbytery's written theological examination for elder candidates and had passed with flying colors? In fact, I had been told that the only reason I wasn't on the session was because I lacked the glad-handing social skills the job required.
I asked him rhetorically if he would advise someone who had been a member of the LDS Church all his life who was having doubts about that particular brand of Christianity to seek out and consult with his Mormon elders before leaving the LDS Church in favor of the PCA. Of course he wouldn't do that. He'd tell that guy he was in a cult and that all his elders will do is say whatever they need to in order to keep him in the fold and advise him to run far, far away. The analogy didn't land and special pleading ensued.
I told him I didn't trust him to have the capacity to be self-critical when it came to the Christian faith. He of all people had vested interests. His entire life, family relationships, social circles, esteem, power, and especially his paycheck were all tied to his adherence to those doctrines. Every fiber of his being was going to resist anything that threatened those things out of a sense of self-preservation, whether he was consciously aware of that or not. In response to this, a man who firmly held to the doctrine of Total Depravity accused me of being cynical.
Despite all this, we remained civil in our discourse and agreed to continue to communicate with them through email and then get together again at a later date. In the mean time, they gave us assurances that they would keep the news under wraps for a while so we could let others know. This was not a promise they were able to keep.
Two days later we received this email from the senior pastor with phileo elder cc'd:
By now we had told our families, so the fact that they were sending out this letter wasn't really a problem. Keep in mind that the week we had originally asked for still wouldn't be up for another day. The fact that he incorporated in this email the story of their telling one of my best friends about our apostasy kind of pissed me off, though. At the time it seemed he was twisting the knife and reminding me who had control over the narrative when it came to all of our friends. I was further regretting my decision to come to the elders first.
I later had an exchange with that friend via email in which he sounded nothing like himself. The correspondence had all the marks of pastoral meddling. Much of it read as though the pastor was standing over his shoulder and some of it sounded as though it was coming directly from the pastor's voice. That could've been merely a mark of influence, but I'll be damned if some of it wasn't nearly a verbatim representation of things the pastor had said.
The bigger issue was his second paragraph. By all appearances he was tipping his hand about the kinds of tactics he was going to employ. He may have suspected from our conversation that weekend that he had no real shot a bringing us back around. From my perspective, his strategy looked like it was going to be to bury me in so much abstract theological bullshit that I would either succumb, get distracted, or simply say "screw this; I'm out." He could then accuse me of shutting up my ears in purposeful rejection of the truth, which would satisfy the narrative he was constructing. Well turnabout is fair play, as the saying goes.
Again he mentioned the breaking hearts and anguish, as though all of this pain was our fault. I'm sure he saw it that way, but I didn't see how that was even relevant to our discussion and I wasn't going to let that go unchecked much longer. First I wanted to call him out on his threat to bury me up to my eyeballs in sophistry and let him know where I saw that the problems truly arose. If he really wanted to address my concerns, I thought he should let me pick the topics for discussion and direct the areas of inquiry. I felt it was time to fire a shot across the bow because he clearly wasn't understanding that the dynamics in the relationship had changed and he damned sure wasn't listening.
I replied that day with this:
Even re-reading it now makes me smile a bit to myself. Rarely do I read something I wrote years later and still find it satisfying. Don't get me wrong. From a relational perspective this probably wasn't the best move, as you'll soon see. Any tiny chance I had at breaking through his wall of doxastic closure was shot all to hell at this point, but boy did that feel good.
About three hours later I received this reply:
With all due respect, I am grieved by the tone of your email. [Apostate], I humbly ask that you please keep in mind that what you used to hold dear, but now scoffingly refer to as "superstitious," "screwed up," "silly stories," and "jingoistic propaganda," we, a church that very much still loves you and your family, still considers the living and abiding Word of God. My passing (light-hearted) remark about a semester at RTS was not meant to communicate that I want you and [Mrs. Apostate] to read thousands of pages of assigned literature. Not at all. I certainly wouldn't expect that. It was only in response to the amount of issues that you presented to us on Saturday morning. It was only to say that we must start somewhere. I thought that a good place to start would be with two well-written, well-reasearched books on canon formation and inspiration. These two issues seem to be the soil of your unbelief.
[Apostate], as you know, the Bible is both simple and complex, much like the universe itself. A children's Bible song will express deep theological truths in a simple way. "Jesus loves me this I know," for instance, is constituted of grand theological and philosophical ideas (e.g. Christology, soteriology, anthropology, epistemology, etc.). "Jesus wept," is the shortest verse in the Bible and may be simply understood as Jesus being sad at the death of Lazarus. However, as you know, there is much meaning to unpack there. You communicated to [phileo elder] and me on Saturday morning that you spent many months researching and studying, looking for answers to your honest and deep theological, philosophical, historical, and epistemological questions. From your comments, I thought that you were looking for something that went a bit deeper than the "succinct" answers you say that you now desire. The questions that you are asking, specifically as it pertains to canon formation and inspiration, are good questions. But they require serious and well-researched answers–– especially as they relate to your deep questions. And these two issues, canon formation and inspiration, seem to be the lion's share of your "thousand cuts" to the Christian Faith. That is simply why I thought two insightful works, written with many of your criticisms in mind, might be helpful in presenting another perspective.
Rather than firing paragraphs out like the one below, a paragraph that I'm not even sure what to do with since the subjects that you mention are so broad in scope (eg Exodus, stories of Patriarchs, the resurrection, inconsistencies and contradictions in Gospels, etc.–– what about them?), it might be better to deal with things on a more macro-level as it concerns the doctrine of Scripture. Again, that seems to be the main problem here.
We could start with the Exodus, the stories of the Patriarchs, the resurrection, the contradictions in the Synoptics, the historical problems of Daniel, failed prophecy, the virtually irreconcilable accounts of Paul in Galatians with the writer of Acts, or the myriad of empirical claims that the Bible makes that are falsifiable. To put it bluntly, if you can’t come up with something other than obvious ad hoc explanations for issues as simple as why, for example, the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are so screwed up when compared with each other, I don’t see any reason why we would need to go any further.
[Apostates], we love you and your children very much. I know that this is hard and emotional for everyone. I get that. [my good friend from church] wept in my study last night. Therefore, in light of all this, perhaps we can work harder to keep our exchanges more cordial and respectful.
Thanks so much.
With Love in Christ,
Ah, the offended victim card. I want the reader to note that pastor dude will never once throughout this entire exchange ever whip out his giant theological...um...knowledge on me. After all that bragging about how he had all the answers to all of my questions and objections, all he will present will be these odd power plays, guilt trips, emotional appeals, and admonishments. I will eventually get a book to read in the mail, so there's that, which is nice.
It seems he'd somehow forgotten who I was. I had sat around with him on many occasions with the other presby bros, smoking pipes and drinking foreign beer and scotch while exchanging off-color remarks amid pseudo-intellectual discourse. We'd bunked together on a mission trip to South America, for crissakes. As a former athlete, I'm certain he's heard everything offensive under the sun in countless locker rooms. I know that his sensibilities are not so fragile. On top of that, he'd been involving himself in nasty scraps over theology for years, so that couldn't be it either. This was so transparently a tactic, and yet I fell for it.
He backpedaled his remarks, which I expected. But then instead of trying to address my concerns, he took a condescending didactic tone and pastorsplained to me about how simple and complex the Bible is. This was not only stuff I had already heard; this was stuff I had actually said. He knew this. He knew I knew this and yet he still felt the need to state all of it. He did all that to try to continue to steer the topics into the direction that he wanted to go and make excuses for his god's lack of ability to explain himself.
He demonstrated, once again, that he was not listening and that he didn't really care to discuss what I want to discuss. He even had the gall to tell me where the "loin's share" of my "thousand cuts" came from. It's almost like instead of constructing a straw man, he wanted me to dress as a straw man for him. I'd never seen this before. Truly. Someone telling me what my objection really is rather than letting me tell them what it is? Who does that?
Upon reflection it occurs to me that perhaps he wasn't really writing this with me in mind as his audience. He was likely trying to reach my wife, who at this point he still thought was under my spell or something (because God knows a woman can't possibly think for herself). Additionally, he's still cc'ing phileo dude on all this stuff as well.
For those who may not know, his "macro-level" comment and perpetual insistence that we focus on those issues is a result of his presuppositional approach to apologetics. This approach is very effective at keeping its adherents from ever actually examining the text outside of their own belief structure. His reluctance to examine the internal inconsistencies of the Bible itself is telling. He really doesn't want to go there and you'll see how badly he doesn't want to go there in a bit when I take him there.
As a parting shot he brings up my good friend again. Kudos to him because that heart string tugging probably got me to soften up and give him the benefit of the doubt on his sensibilities being genuinely offended. I began to think that perhaps he just found this shocking because it was coming from me. I can be a real sap sometimes.
That night I started to feel bad. Perhaps I was being too adversarial and sensing ulterior motives and intentional gamesmanship where none existed. I figured it would be best if he could hear my tone over the phone. I sent the following:
Please accept this as an expression of my sincere apologies for my caustic tone before you and [phileo guy]. Please call me tonight if you get a chance so that I may offer one audibly.
Like I said. I can be real sap. In my defense I didn't want to give him an excuse to cut me off just yet and I was worried he might use this pearl-clutching tactic as a way to break away and make things easier on himself.
He called shortly after I sent the message and I apologized further for offending him. I told him that I still cared for him and still considered him a friend. He then told me that his goal in our conversations was to convince me to return to the faith because I was putting my family on a destructive path and embracing a worldview with devastating consequences for both myself and society as a whole. His stated aim was to rescue us from this.
This is an area where Christians just don't have any self-awareness at all. He had no idea how condescending that sounded to me. Nor did he have any notion of just how sinister that sounds to anyone outside of his belief system. On top of that, he expressed no concern whatsoever about figuring out what's actually true. It was all about convincing me that he was right. He needed to hear himself and I figured I could help him do that.
I told him that since I too still cared for him and his family that I had similar hopes that our conversations would lead to him rethinking his beliefs. I told him how it was my view that many of the things his religion espoused were dangerous to his and his family's well-being and to society at large. I didn't want him to get the mistaken notion that this was going to be a one-way street and I wanted him to see how it felt to know that the person you were speaking with is trying actively to change your mind.
He went silent. I didn't realize at the time just how badly he would react to this and just how insecure he was. We found out later that following this phone conversation he began telling people that I was out to destroy him and his ministry.
Apparently it was OK for him to want to try to change my mind, but it was not OK for me to try to change his. In fact, it was a dark, sinister, demonic plot against him and his family. I have no idea how much mileage he got out of portraying himself as some kind of warrior for the faith under attack from a devious betrayer. In their minds, instead of just being two people with a fundamental disagreement about the nature of reality, we were locked in a battle between ultimate good and evil.
I had no idea what kinds of things were being spread about me at this point subsequent to that conversation. I agreed to read the book he was going to send me. I ended up with the mistaken impression that we had agreed we would discuss the issues he wanted to discuss as well as the ones I did, so I decided to open up the substantive portion of our exchange.
He was sending me a book to read that fit with his "macro" view, so I figured in the mean time we could maybe discuss things at the level I wanted to examine. I sent the below the following day. I know it's long, but keep in mind dude was sending me a book. And not a light and fluffy book written for popular audiences either. You'll note that I also included some caveats that this was just a starting point for discussion and to give some concrete examples. I did not expect him to respond to all of it, but I did hope he would respond to something at least. Apparently it was OK for him to load me up with a mountain of theological sophistry to sift through, but providing him with some brief commentary on the first part of a single book of in the actual Bible was just too much.
While we are waiting for Warfield I thought I would try to give some concrete examples of what I’m talking about with respect to things that I find internally inconsistent in the Bible. I know I unfairly listed several broad examples in my last screed, but I’ll try this time just to focus on one narrative section. I’ve selected it based on the fact that it doesn’t include anything that I feel you would potentially find offensive. Although I still would like to discuss Lot some time because I really do see the origin story of Moab and Ammon as an example of a folkloric tradition and I really don’t think I was mischaracterizing it by calling it jingoistic propaganda. It was not my intention to suggest that all of the Bible can be classified that way, just that story in particular.
Anyway, I have selected portions of the early narratives of Exodus. I don’t necessarily see this is as some kind of linchpin, but practically speaking, if my points on these things cannot be adequately addressed, I don’t see much hope for some of the other problems we’ve yet to discuss. I’m just throwing some stuff out as a starting point so you can see why I don’t view the Bible as inspired, inerrant and infallible anymore.
I’m not always the best at communicating in writing and often assume too much about my audience sometimes, so please let me know if you’re not following something or can’t see my point somewhere and I’ll try to clarify. I’ll begin each section with the chapter and verses and then follow with a comment.
It strikes me as odd that in spite of having been raised by a pharaoh’s daughter and presumably taught at least recent Egyptian history, Moses never names the rulers of Egypt during the time of the Patriarchs, the oppression, or the Exodus. It’s almost as if the writer of these accounts didn’t have a source with that information. Because of this, it is nearly impossible to match up the chronology of the Exodus with comparatively well-documented Egyptian historical records. It’s almost as if the story could be set “Once upon a time in the land of Egypt.” With all the names of various figures given elsewhere why do we only have the title “pharaoh”?
According to Egyptian records and modern archeology, the storage city of Pithom wasn’t built until the 7th century BC and the earliest possible date for a city associated with anyone named Ramesses would’ve been in the 13th century BC. Both of these are far too late for them to have been built by the Hebrew slaves of Exodus. Again, not a huge deal if you dismiss archeology every time it clashes with Bible, but it is one of those cuts I was talking about.
Listed here are 2 midwives with Hebrew names. There’s only 2 of them for a population that was able to muster 600,000 fighting men from among them in another 80 years? That doesn’t seem likely. Maybe we can just write it off as meaning they were the heads of the vast army of midwives that would’ve been necessary to deliver babies at an alarming rate.
The account of Pharaoh’s attempt at population control posing an early existential threat to the life of the hero of the story contains several elements that betray it as a work of legendary folklore. First of all, it is counterintuitive for Pharaoh to order the slaughter of the male children. It seems that a much more practical way to control a growing slave population would be to order the killing of the female infants, especially in a society that allowed polygamy. A lone male could impregnate multiple females at a time and maintain potency for almost his entire life, whereas women are limited to a single pregnancy at a time and have a window of fertility during their lifespans. We’re even told in the narrative that Pharaoh is working under the assumption that “the Hebrew women are vigorous.” Ergo, wipeout the women, problem solved.
Additionally, the stated point of the slave labor was to build cities. A higher ratio of females to males results in an additional strain on resources and a net loss of manual labor. It’s a pretty bone-headed idea from a practical standpoint for population control and is the kind of thing that only makes sense if we see it as plot device needed to threaten the hero and set up a later story parallel with the killing of the firstborn of Egypt in the tenth plague. If not, this pharaoh is almost as incompetent of a ruler as his successor.
The whole situation allows for the setup of an infant exposure story. The infant exposure motif was very common in ancient mythology and often involved water of some kind, probably symbolizing afterbirth. As you know, in the ancient world, birth was a rather perilous event in and of itself and this motif would highlight that struggle. The hero would certainly face great obstacles later, but in overcoming the obstacles at birth, his favor with the gods and track record of victory is established at the outset of his story.
Sargon of Akkad (2270-2215 BC) was one such infant exposure story and his tale predates Moses. His infant exposure story involves his mother hiding his birth, making a basket of rushes, sealing it with bitumen, and placing him in the Euphrates River. Like Moses, he’s born to the priestly class, but unlike him, he’s raised as a peasant and later wins the favor of the goddess Ishtar as a gardener and becomes a great ruler. Other examples include Karna, a 9th century BC Indian warrior placed in a basket on the Ganges River; Oedipus, Paris, and Telephus who were all Greeks abandoned on mountains; Perseus who was put in a box and cast into the sea; Romulus and Remus who were placed in a basket along the Tiber River; and Sigurd, a Norse hero placed in a crystal vessel and kicked into a river.
I suppose one could argue that the Moses story is different because it really happened and all those others were just coincidences, copycat stories or types that point the reality of the Moses story. However, since this is hardly the only story element that points to the legendary and fictive nature of this Biblical narrative, making an exception for Moses here looks a lot like special pleading. Of course, there’s another similar, well-known infant exposure story in the New Testament as well that contains obvious fictive elements, but we’ll save that discussion for some other time.
The account of the naming of Moses is odd for several reasons if we take it as an historical account rather than a work of literary fiction. First of all, we can assume that the princess would’ve spoken Egyptian, not Hebrew and would’ve given the child an Egyptian name. Yet the reason for the naming only makes sense in Hebrew. The closest Egyptian cognate would be the word “mose”. In Egyptian it’s often used as a naming suffix meaning “child of”, as in Thutmose (child of Thoth, the god of wisdom) or Ahmose (child of the moon).
Additionally, the Hebrew name in this particular spelling takes the form of the active participle and means “the one who draws out” pointing more to what Moses would later do, rather than what was done to him by the princess. It’s almost as if the writer is trying to force an origin story for Moses’ name that could explain how he acquired it at birth without having to acknowledge that the character really got his name from his legendary actions later in life in drawing the people out of Egypt.
Birth narratives almost always develop after a legendary figure has already taken shape within folklore. The same can be observed later with Jesus Christ, as the earliest writings about him including the Pauline epistles, general epistles and the Gospel of Mark mention nothing about any of the miraculous circumstances surrounding his birth.
Here he’s Reul; in 4:18, he’s Jethro. Why does Moses so often insist on using two or more different names for people and places throughout these books? Doesn’t he know that gets confusing? It’s almost as if there were multiple traditions of these stories being edited together.
God is said to have heard, remembered, saw and understood. Literary devices? Anthropomorphisms? That’s the usual answer. But what if the writer really does have a low enough view of Yahweh to attribute these characteristics to him simply because he really does envision gods this way?
More anthropomorphisms? Or is our author’s view of god not so transcendent?
After Yahweh commissions his servant Moses to go to Egypt and tell pharaoh to let his people go under threat of killing pharaoh’s first born son, Moses, Zipporah and their two sons (see v. 20) travel to Egypt from Midian and they stop for the night. While there, Yahweh meets Moses and seeks to kill him. It’s left to Zipporah to figure out why, circumcise one of their sons and touch Moses’ “feet” with the foreskin. Yahweh then decides to leave Moses alone and Zipporah calls Moses a “bridegroom of blood.”
This really weird passage lacks any explanation in the text itself and gets any number of interpretations. It’s odd for several reasons. It interrupts the flow of the text. It lacks clear antecedents for the pronouns and objects for the verbs, making it unclear just who exactly Yahweh intends to kill and whether Zipporah touches the foreskin to Moses’ feet, her sons’ feet or even Yahweh’s feet (several translations insert “Moses” but my understanding is that it’s not provided in the Hebrew).
Additionally, it raises some obvious and ultimately unanswerable questions. Why was Yahweh so angry with Moses that he felt the need to take such a rash action and try to kill him (or his son)? Why does Yahweh need to “seek to kill” anyone? Why couldn’t this misunderstanding have been worked out earlier? Why no prior warning? How did Zipporah know what to do and why does Moses seem helpless and unaware? Why only one son and not both? How did she know to touch it to something? What does her saying mean? Who was it addressed to? What in the world is the point to all of this? None of those questions can be clearly answered by the text itself and all of them are anyone’s guess. To me it’s just another example of the lack of clarity found throughout the Bible.
“By my name ‘Yahweh’ I was not known to them”; it takes lots of explanation and speculation about what this means to make this work. There are several examples in Genesis of people knowing and using Yahweh’s name. Moses supposedly wrote about that. Why does he not remember?
For problems related to this passage see Gen. 15:13-16, Ex. 12:40, Gal. 3:17.
Additionally, Moses and Aaron are four generations from Levi, but in 1 Chronicles 7:20-27 we find that Joshua is 12 generations from Joseph. Something’s not adding up.
The Egyptian sorcerers’ bringing up frogs with their own secret arts is odd. Why would they even do that? To prove that their gods can do what Yahweh can do? How would anyone even know that it was their frogs and not Yahweh’s fogs? How did they know it was water they had changed to blood and not water that Yahweh had change? Why would pharaoh even want them to this? This would be like the president blowing up the Empire State Building in response to the 9/11 attacks.
“Tomorrow”? Really, pharaoh? Why not now? The population’s entire water supply was contaminated, followed by an invasion of pests and the head of state not only has his own men duplicate Yahweh’s terrorist acts [That is what you call it when you threaten a civilian populace to try to change a political leader’s mind, is it not?], but when given the opportunity to end them, he postpones things for a day? Perhaps we can accept that his heart was so hard that there was no concern for his own people. However, the potential for violent civil unrest had to have at least occurred to him.
In any normal situation, when a country is faced with such a crisis as a real and present threat to their entire water supply, there would surely be riots in the streets and other such demonstrations of desperation. Large groups of people in any civilization simply don’t take threats to basic necessities like water with calm and collected resignation. So many of these descriptions of the ways people act in the Pentateuch simply contradict everything we know about normal human behavior. This is but one example.
Yahweh is just getting warmed up, though. There are still 8 more plagues to go, all of them catastrophic in scope and most of them directly threatening things that are basic necessities for the sustaining of a civilization. Somehow Ancient Egypt manages to survive and even thrive for hundreds of years following the contamination of their entire water supply, the widespread deaths of their livestock on at least 3 separate occasions, the destruction of their cultivated and uncultivated food supplies on at least 2 separate occasions and a dramatic reduction in population.
The reduction in population would have been not only from the death of every first born, but also from the massive starvation, disease and civil unrest which would surely have followed these plagues. What about mass migration? One would think the idea of emigration would have occurred to these folks. Surely it dawned on some of the Egyptians that maybe now would be a good time to sell themselves into slavery to some neighboring people in Philistia or Cush just to get the heck out of Egypt, right? Are we to believe that after say the 4th or 5th plagues everybody was still intent on riding this thing out?
Additionally, their civilization managed to survive other minor things like the death of their monarch and his successor, the total annihilation of their chariot forces, and the departure of a slave labor force numbering in the millions that supposedly took much of the remaining material wealth with them along with a “mixed multitude” of Egyptians who decided to go with them. Any one of these devastating events could have precipitated the collapse of this entire civilization, and yet they seem to bounce back rather quickly from them all. That’s quite curious.
Not only did the resilient Egyptians manage to recover from these events, they managed to wipe them clean from their otherwise well-kept records of the period. Even if they had managed to purposely remove all written records of these events including any alternate accounts, surely there would have been a profound psychological and cultural impact on them and the generations that followed for hundreds of years as they searched for meaning and explanation for these hardships. And yet, nary a scrap of cultural or archeological evidence pointing to such an utterly devastating encounter with a foreign deity remains.
The Hyksos and Akhenaten’s henotheistic shift are sometimes pointed to as possible examples of how the exodus may have impacted Egyptian culture and history, but those events are relatively minor by comparison and have much simpler explanations accompanied by actual archeological evidence. Never mind the fact that they wouldn’t fit the chronology anyway. At best the story of the exodus is an incredibly over-exaggerated retelling of some rather minor historical events involving the departure of some foreign slaves. At worst the whole thing was completely made up.
The magicians try and fail to bring forth gnats/mosquitos/lice/ticks/fleas/whatever they were with their secret arts and since they can’t replicate it, they conclude that Elohim actually did it. Note that we are to understand that these magicians really were replicating these plagues prior to this point and only now when they can’t they conclude that Elohim did it. It’s odd because it’s as though they were unimpressed by the plagues up until now. Why would that be? Was their power real?
Here the text says the whole land was ruined by the swarms but this is only the fourth plague. Surely there must have been something left to be ruined later, right? What is the hail going to smash? What will the locusts eat?
The fifth plague involves some kind of disease that kills livestock. One must note the comparison in verse 6 that “all the livestock of the Egyptians” died, but “not one of the livestock of Israel died.” The contrast suggests totality. The natural understanding of this text is that only the Israelites would’ve had living livestock at this point. This is odd because Egyptian livestock will be mentioned again...and again…and again.
Animals break out with boils along with the people. What animals? Certainly not all the livestock that were killed in the preceding plague, right?
Yahweh says he’s going to bring hail and warns the people to bring their slaves and livestock in from the field or else they’ll die from it. Again, what livestock? How much livestock could they possibly have left at this point? Verse 21 says that some of Pharaoh’s servants did not take Yahweh’s word seriously and left their slaves and cattle in the field. Really? After six previous plagues, two of them involving livestock, they’re actually just going to take chances and not do something relatively simple to preserve what little remains of their property? Maybe they just figured they had really tough livestock. I mean, after all, these animals had already survived contaminated water, biting insects, widespread disease and boils, why not deadly hail?
9:25 & 35
Here we learn how vast the devastation of plant life was from the hail. Note that it struck “all the cultivated grain” and “all the trees of the field” were broken. However, in verse 35 there is an oddly-placed parenthetical remark that clarifies that it was just the ripened flax and barley and not the wheat and spelt that were struck because those didn’t ripen until later. The verse is odd because it contains the Hebrew word kussemet which is only found in 2 other biblical texts that were supposedly written nearly 800 years later (Isaiah 28:25 & Ezekiel 4:9). It’s quite the linguistic feat. It’s also odd because it tries to “solve” an obvious problem that occurs in the next plague, i.e. what was left for the locusts to eat.
Again, note the totality. Everything the hail left of [broken?] trees or plants was devoured by these locusts that were so numerous the ground was dark with them. Surely by now the entire food supply of Egypt is gone. All that would’ve been left would be whatever could be found in the land of Goshen. Would that have been enough to sustain millions of Hebrew slaves as well as all the Egyptians?
Yahweh drives every last locust out of Egypt and into the Red Sea. Now the Egyptians can’t even eat them either.
Note that the firstborn cattle are struck down. What cattle? This must mean the cattle that survived the disease that wiped out all the livestock, or the cattle that survived the boils and biting insects. Or maybe it was the cattle that wasn’t in the fields that was killed by the deadly hail, or the cattle that didn’t rapidly die of starvation because there was no vegetation left to eat. Perhaps it was some of the cattle that weren’t slaughtered for food in desperation by the starving populace. Just how many firstborn were left of these amazingly resilient cattle for Yahweh to strike down? No wonder the Egyptians (and later the Israelites themselves) fashioned gods after them.
Here we find the odd statement that there was no house in which there was not someone dead from the tenth plague. That’s absolutely remarkable considering just normal things like regular infant mortality rates among people in the Ancient Near East. Lots of firstborn males would’ve naturally died in infancy. Never mind the fact that much of the population had likely died prior to this plague, among them many firstborn. Yet there are enough firstborn remaining that there’s not one house in which there was not someone dead from this plague. One commentator suggested that people shouldn’t push the literalness of this passage too far. No kidding.
Here we get an idea of how many people are leaving Egypt to journey into the wilderness when the fighting men are numbered at 600,000. Inerrantists will usually do whatever they can to get estimates for the total number as low as possible. Some will say the word “eleph” should be translated “troops” or “military units” and not “thousand”, making this number appear much smaller, but that won’t work when compared to the wording of other passages in the Pentateuch like Numbers 3:39 (the Levites were to be non-combatants). Also, the census tax of Exodus 38:25-26 leaves no room for this interpretation either. Additionally, the word “eleph” is used when numbering animals in Numbers 31, so that won’t work there as cattle and donkeys aren’t typically grouped in military units.
Some will point out that there’s no reason to estimate the total population at over 2 million since the text only makes certain that there were 600,000 military-age men. But isn’t less than 2 million a bit unreasonable? Surely the men of military age would’ve made up less than 30% of the population, right? After all, we’re constantly reminded of how prolific these folks were at popping out kids. If for every man of military age there was an average of just one wife and two under-age kids, we’re already at 2.4 million people and we haven’t even begun to add in the elderly, the infirm, the “mixed multitude” and “very much cattle” mentioned in the next verse. 3 million is not an unreasonable assumption for a total population that supposedly had 600,000 men able to go to war and 40 years later had just as many after all of the adults had died off. There had to have been a considerable number of women to pop out all those kids and a considerable number of male children to make up the difference after the die off.
A population of 2.5 - 3 million people along with their livestock and “very much cattle” creates a myriad of problems. First we have the population growth necessary to get to this number. We’re told that less than 100 people or so went into Egypt either 430 years or 215 years prior, depending on whether or not the 430 years is supposed to include the time in Canaan after Abraham received the promise in addition to the time in Egypt (see Gal. 3:17 in addition to the four-generation-long genealogy from Levi to Moses in Ex. 6:16-20). Even if it’s 430 years, the sustained growth rate that would’ve been necessary to produce this multitude is astounding.
Attempts have been made to show how this might have been possible, but they stretch the bounds of anything remotely believable. Never mind that these were oppressed slaves that experienced at least one point of imposed population control during captivity when they were required to essentially sacrifice their male children to the Nile River. No wonder the Egyptians were alarmed.
Additionally, the Land of Goshen, presumably in the eastern Nile delta near Avaris, Ramesses and Pithom, must’ve been incredibly fertile to have sustained a population density this massive without the aid of things we take for granted today like international trade, modern farming techniques, modern medicine and food preservation. These things, which were unavailable to the ancient world, are what make population growth possible. Just as a reference point, a population this size did not exist in any single urban area in the world until London in the mid-1800s whilst in the midst of the Industrial Revolution.
Setting the growth rates and sustainability aside as astonishing miracles, there are insurmountable logistical problems involved with moving a group of people this size through any environment, much less an arid desert. If they each only had a paltry 3 feet of space about which to maneuver, then lined abreast at half a mile, they would stretch back nearly four miles. But, even the most disciplined Roman legion wouldn’t be able to maintain ranks like this, especially across the wildly divergent terrain. The column would have to narrow greatly, which would lengthen them out for tens or potentially even hundreds of miles. The Sinai Peninsula is only 120 miles across at its widest point. Geography alone presents some serious problems for a traveling group this size.
OK, so setting aside growth rates and travel as miracles of Yahweh, there are also the problems associated with the encampments. A conservative estimate for the campsite size necessary for a group this large would be at least ten square miles. This assumes that one could even find enough land area suitable for an encampment this large at each one of the stages of the wilderness wanderings. Some estimates push it as far as thirty square miles, but we’ll err on the conservative side.
Aside from that problem there are things like access to their water supply and sanitation issues within the camp. We’re told that they got water from a rock on at least a couple of occasions or that a watering rock even followed them (1 Cor. 10:4), but getting access to that water would be a real problem. In order to get enough water for themselves and their flocks, thousands of people would’ve needed to be able to access this water supply at the exact same time. Waiting in lines of tens would not work. People couldn’t carry enough of it or store enough of it to hold them over until the next time they could get back in line. Just think about it. 3 million people waiting in line for a single water source?
Now think about how much urine and feces a group of people this large would excrete. People produce about one ounce of poop per day for every 12 pounds of body weight. If we average the bodyweight of the Israelites to just 120 pounds each, that’s 10 ounces of poop per person, per day. That means this multitude would be crapping nearly 1,000 tons of poop each day with, at best, very basic camp-style sanitation. We should probably assume that in a desert environment, they’re not going to be peeing as much as normal, but they would still need to urinate some to maintain health. Even if each person only peed 8 ounces a day of super-concentrated urine, they’d collectively still produce nearly 150,000 gallons of urine per day. That’s over 2 billion gallons of stinky, concentrated pee over the course of 40 years of wandering. The Sinai Peninsula would’ve been turned into the largest litter box in history. Sites like Kedesh Barnea, where they supposedly spent quite a bit of time, would’ve been absolutely overrun with sewage.
Similar to the problems associated with this multitude of people, there would be a myriad of problems associated with the massive flocks and herds that they supposedly had with them. Speaking of flocks and herds, if the priests did begin performing sacrifices with them as prescribed in later parts of the Pentateuch during the wilderness wanderings as we are led to believe, that presents even more absurdities. There were only 3 priests (after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu) to officiate what would have been a ridiculous number of daily sacrifices required for a camp this size.
The census of Numbers 26 indicates that roughly the same number of Israelites that went into the wilderness came out of it. Unless they left Egypt with an even greater multitude of children than previously supposed, further compounding all the prior problems, this would likely require over 120 births per day to maintain the population. Each one of these births required a purification sacrifice. Working 12 hour days, that’s a rate of over 3 sacrifices each per hour just for the associated purification rituals. Keep in mind this is just one of the duties of these priests. Leviticus prescribes lots more duties for these guys and here’s just a single task that would’ve been monumental. Recall that the intestinal remains of the offerings had to be burned outside the camp. Each sacrifice would’ve been done in the middle of the camp where the Tabernacle was and then had to be taken outside the camp and be burned. This would be a journey of nearly five miles roundtrip based on the previously estimated size of the camp necessary for 2-3 million people.
What about wood for all the fires? The priests would have needed it for the constant sacrifices. The people were apparently burning it for warmth, cooking and metallurgy as later passages indicate. One guy is even stoned for collecting it on the Sabbath day. But the question remains, where does one find enough wood for this size of an encampment in the Sinai Desert? 3 million people surely would’ve picked the place clean quite rapidly.
What about all the dead bodies? Everybody but Caleb and Joshua who was an adult at the time of the report of the spies had to die over that 40 year period. That’s well over 1 million corpses scattered across the wilderness at various campsites. The writer of Deuteronomy tries to deal with the problem of clothes wearing out by positing that it was a miracle of Yahweh (Dt. 29:5). However, no miraculous explanation is given for exactly how they managed to clothe the generation of Israelites born into and growing up in the wilderness over that 40 year period. Maybe the clothes just appeared and grew with them? Maybe it was from the animal skins of all those flocks and herds they had with them that had been slaughtered for sacrifices?
All of these things: the population growth and sustainability, the traveling ranks, the sacrifices, the firewood, the sanitation issues, access to the water, the campsite size, the clothes, and every other associated impossibility simply have to be swept under the massive “God did it” rug. Every absurdity must be met with this solution. It is simply the only solution available to anyone who wishes to reconcile the incredible problems associated with the population size suggested in this and other passages.
According to this passage the sons of Israel lived in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years. We’ve already seen how this is problematic in various ways. One additional problem yet to be mentioned is the fact that after living among each other’s cultures for four hundred and thirty years, the Hebrew and Egyptian languages have remarkably few loan words.
Yahweh doesn’t think the 600,000 fighting men of Israel are sufficient to make their way through the land of the Philistines (people who hadn’t yet settled this region and wouldn’t be a formidable force for several hundred years according to Egyptian records) without his people becoming discouraged, changing their minds and returning to a now-ransacked and utterly desolate Egypt. To avoid such discouragement he leads them to the Red Sea. He has no trouble parting the Red Sea, but keeping his people from wanting to go back to Egypt at the sight of some Philistines is apparently a monumental task. It sounds more like a storyteller’s convenient excuse for making them go to the Red Sea.
Pharaoh takes six hundred choice chariots and all the rest of the chariots of Egypt and chases the Israelites. One has to wonder what pulled these chariots. It couldn’t have been horses, right? All of them would’ve died from disease, boils, biting insects, hail, etc. They couldn’t have just taken them from the Israelites or recently imported them because chariot horses would have to be trained and there simply wouldn’t have been enough time to raise and train new ones.
2 – 3 million people and their flocks and herds made the trek across the Red Sea in a single night.
After witnessing Yahweh’s victory, Moses and the group of 2 – 3 million people with him manage to compose a little impromptu ditty and sing it together. That’s surely another great miracle on the order of the parting of the Red Sea.
This verse sure looks like a rather strong allusion to Jerusalem and the Temple mount, suggesting it was composed by someone aware of their existence. Maybe it was just an inspired coincidence or merely refers to the entire Promised Land as some suggest. Yeah, that’s it.
The Israelites journey out into the Desert of Shur, walk for three days into the desert and find no water. Then they come to Marah, but can’t drink the water there because it’s bitter. This is the first time in the entire journey up to this point where water, their most basic physical need, is addressed. Verse 22 says they’ve gone at least three days without finding any water. Just how much water do 2 – 3 million people along with their flocks and herds need and how much could they carry that would allow them to travel that far without finding any? Would they survive in any environment walking for three days on less than half a gallon of water per person per day? It’s doubtful, and this is in a desert environment in late spring/early summer.
A gallon of water weights about 8 pounds, so for just themselves, each person would need to have set out from the Red Sea carrying about 12 pounds of fresh water just to be able to drink half a gallon a day, which probably isn’t enough for desert travel. Where they would’ve gotten this water from in the first place, we aren’t told. Also, we haven’t even factored in their flocks and herds. If they’re using pack animals to carry their stuff, each one of those animals would’ve had to carry water for itself as well. The water needs for most livestock is going to be even greater than that of the humans. Keep in mind they’re carrying everything they’ve plundered from the Egyptians including over 11 tons of precious metals they would later need for the tabernacle (Ex. 25:1-3, 11, 17-19, 31; 30:12-16; 38:24-29). The logistics involved in transporting this much water just gets ridiculous.
This verse implies that the 12 wells of water at Elim provided enough water for 2 – 3 million people and their animals. If we assume that the water in these wells was virtually inexhaustible, that 10 people at a time could access the water from each well and that they took a mere 30 seconds each to draw water – a highly unlikely scenario – that means 240 people per minute could draw water. At that rate it would take nearly 2 whole days for each of the 600,000 numbered fighting men alone to draw water just once.
Here we find that it has been about 45 days since the people left Egypt as they arrive at the Desert of Sin. This would probably put them well over 150 miles from the Nile Delta. It’s only now that they begin to complain about food and Yahweh provides manna. This implies that they’ve been carrying enough food prior to this point and it has just run out. Perhaps you are familiar with the saying that an army travels on its stomach? Add a massive amount of food to the list of things they would’ve had to carry with them.
Just how much food was it? One ounce of dry wheat kernels provides about 42 calories. If their average caloric intake was just 1,000 calories per day - a paltry amount for this kind of travel – they would each consume about a pound and half of dry wheat per day. This means that each person would’ve needed to set out from Egypt carrying nearly 70 pounds of food with them. The 600,000 numbered fighting men alone would have needed over 20,000 tons of wheat over this 45 day period.
One can’t simply solve this problem by having the already-overburdened pack animals carry the load. Small sheep consume about 3 lbs. of dry matter per day, cows about 25, and donkeys and horses about 14, so positing more animals to carry stuff only further exacerbates the problem. Note that this problem doesn’t go away by dramatically cutting back the number of people in the group from 2 – 3 million to say 20-30 thousand. This would be a problem for a group of a couple hundred people.
Here we see Aaron addressing the whole community of the Israelites. One wonders how this was accomplished without a modern public address system.
This text implies that there was some baking and boiling going on in the camp to prepare all this manna and qual. How much firewood would be consumed? As a rough estimate, they’d probably need at least 10 pounds of firewood for a family just to have a small cooking fire. Anyone who’s ever cooked with a campfire will recognize that this is an incredibly small amount of firewood, but let’s just be as conservative as possible.
If they only had one small fire for every 4 people, they’d still need over 3,000 tons of firewood per day just for cooking. That’s over a million tons of wood in a year and after 40 years of wandering that’s over 40 million tons of firewood. A forested area might average up to 75 tons of tree biomass per acre. This means our Israelites would be burning an average of 40 acres of forest per day, or nearly 15,000 acres per year. That’s over half a million acres of forest over a 40 year period. If they were wandering through the “wilderness” of the Pacific Northwest and if we ignored all the additional problems faced in the harvesting of that wood, that might be feasible, but they’re not. They’re wandering in an arid region where they’d be lucky to find a handful of acacias and sycamores dotted across an otherwise barren landscape.
Moses has Aaron place some manna in a jar to be kept so that future generations can see the food Yahweh fed them in the wilderness and presumably be bolstered in their faith. What’s odd is that Aaron places it in the Testimony [the Ark of the Covenant] for safekeeping. This would be a place that only a very exclusive group would have access to. How exactly was the average Israelite supposed to ever see the stuff there? I suppose everyone would just have to take the high priest’s word for it. This assumes any of the subsequent generations of high priests would ever bother to just pop the lid and take a peek inside before they started slinging blood everywhere. This, of course, completely ignores the anachronistic placement of the Ark into the narrative at a time when it hadn’t even been constructed yet.
Yahweh pledges to erase the Amalekites from memory and wants that memorialized in a book. This passage is not only a pledge of genocide, but the phrasing of the idiom actually contradicts the request. Amalek is only remembered because the Hebrews wrote about them, and quite frequently at that.
This passage indicates that Jethro was a polytheist (or at least a henotheist), yet Moses makes no attempt to correct his theology.
Following the advice of Jethro, the over-worked Moses appoints rulers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Stephen is quoted in Acts 7:22 as saying that Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. He has “face to face” conversations with Yahweh. Yet his father-in-law has to propose the rather basic idea of delegating authority?
Also, the task of choosing just the rulers over thousands among the numbered fighting men alone would have required making over 600 individual appointments (2,000 – 3,000 if it means from among the whole multitude). If he personally selected the rest, which the text seems to suggest, this would add another 78,000 appointments (260,000 – 390,000 if from among the whole group). Deuteronomy 1:13-15 seems to indicate that the people made nominations and Moses selected from among them. This would certainly cut down on the time involved in the selection process, but it would still be a ridiculously enormous task for one person.
The multitude now has to wash their clothes in preparation for the coming of the presence of Yahweh. Three million people now need to have access to enough water to be able to wash their clothes. They have three days, even though later in the passage it’s implied that it was accomplished almost immediately upon Moses’ return. This is going to require an even greater herculean supply chain management effort than before to get all that water from the rock to the people in time.
Yahweh tells Moses to make sure the priests who approach him sanctify themselves lest they be destroyed. What priests? There are no Israelite priests at this point. The priests won’t be chosen and consecrated until chapters 28 & 29. This becomes even clearer in 24:4-5 when Moses is seen officiating the presentation of burnt offerings and peace offerings and appointing young men to help him. Officiating this offering would have been the exclusive duty of the priests, but presumably because there are none, Moses has to do it.
So what priests is Yahweh talking about in chapter 19? He does say the people will be to him a kingdom of priests back in verse 6, but in verses 22 and 24 he’s clearly speaking of two different groups as “the people” and “the priests”, so he can’t mean that all the people are priests in this context. The only other priest heretofore mentioned in Exodus was Jethro, a priest of Midian. The simplest explanation is that a redactor eiher introduced or neglected to omit an anachronism.
The other odd part about this passage is that Moses has to remind Yahweh that he had previously instructed him to build a boundary and that anyone passing was to be either stoned or shot on sight. Yahweh seems particularly concerned that people will try to break through and get up the mountain to see him. His concern appears unfounded. We learn in 20:18 that the people were absolutely terrified of coming near him. They even beg Moses not to make them get any closer. While this passage certainly portrays Yahweh as powerful and terrifying, it doesn’t do much to show off his intellect. He seems to have forgotten that there are no priests and that he had instructed the boundary to be set. Additionally, he was apparently not able to predict how the people would react to his presence. I suppose these were all just anthropomorphisms though so that we can relate to him, right?
I have much, much more I could discuss but I’ve probably already started enough fires with that. I’m sorry if I came across as offensive at any point and I look forward to hearing your thoughts if you wish to share them.
So, yeah. Now he had a bit of an idea of what he was dealing with.
A day passed and I received a reply from him in which he went from the 9.5 size font he had been using up to a nice, bolder 13.2 font size, presumably to emphasize how upset he was. Note also that he employs a tactic called "repeat signifying" wherein he uses direct address with my first name at a few points throughout as a rhetorical device to express his annoyance and condescension.
Something to chew? You've sent me an almost 7500 word email with about 100 questions and assertions–– most of which appear to stem from an extremely skeptical and anti-supernatural posture. Even if I thought it necessary to answer this barrage of questions, there simply isn't enough time to do so. You may view this as a cop-out, but it would take me hours upon hours to answer this first installment of your questions. I'm sure you didn't really expect me to do this. Moreover, our assumptions and starting points are so different, [Apostate]. And my sitting down and studying these texts with critical / exegetical commentaries, and giving you what I think are sufficient answers (yes, I've studied the history and theology of the Pentateuch), will be little different than you honestly searching for the answers yourself. Perhaps you will see my unwillingness to answer your questions as some kind of a concession. It's not. It's just an unwillingness, at this point, to engage at the micro-level (ie massive emails with dozens of questions).
In your crisis of faith - while you were "searching for answers" - did you search the resources that you know would have been those that I would have looked to (you are very familiar with our tradition)? Did you ever distrust yourself in your personal study, just in case your doubts and skepticism were clouding your reading? From my perspective, if I was having massive doubts about the Faith that I held dear for 20 years, a Faith that has been vigorously defended by some of the sharpest minds in the world, I would have gone to my trusted friends and counselors and looked for answers and helpful resources. I would have sought counsel through the best books that Christendom has produced or is currently producing. My understanding is that you've done neither. This has left me bewildered. I just don't understand it. Perhaps you will spend some time with the resources that we will send you now. But please know that I'm not looking to debate with you and spend hours responding to your myriad questions (something that you mentioned you weren't interested in doing either, if I recall correctly). Rather I hope to provide you with some helpful resources in order to answer some of your deep philosophical and theological questions, if you are interested.
[Apostate], I was encouraged by your telephone apology for the tone of your email. However, I was devastated to hear you tell me, your pastor and friend, that it's your mission in our interaction to rescue me and my family from a religion that is damaging and impede's the progress of humanity. [Apostate], you and [Mrs Apostate] stood before our congregation many years ago and made vows. You declared before God and the congregation that you believe the scriptures to be the Word of God, that you trust in Jesus Christ, that you promise to submit to the leadership, and that you promise keep the peace and purity of the church. We did not force you to make those vows. You made them of your own volition. We have loved you and your children for many, many years. You are now forsaking all of these vows and promises, and encouraging me (and presumably others) to do the same. This is shameful. And the way I understand things, your new belief system is rooted in one of two things, relativism (morality and truth are subjective, and so to "each his own") or a specific religion that views other belief systems as immoral. Clearly, you hold to the latter in your attempt to undermine my faith (and others') faith in Christ. But who is the God of your new religion? Who is the judge of right and wrong? Who determines what is good and evil? Who determines that Christianity is evil or abusive or damaging to children? It must be you.
FYI, this has been by far the hardest week of my ministry. Pastoral visits, phone calls, letters, and conversations have been manifold over these matters. My precious wife, and other elders' wives have shed numerous tears over your apostasy. My own heart has been extremely burdened for you both, and for [the Apostate's children]. Though you no longer claim to believe in the crucified and risen Christ, and in biblical prayer, we will, full of faith, be praying for our beloved [Apostates]. We love you. Please be assured that everything I've said flows from a heart of love and eyes full of tears.
With Love in Christ,
Welp, so much for substantive dialogue about the text itself.
Let's sum up:
- He expects me to put in the time and effort reading and responding to a 400+ page book, but he doesn't have the time to respond to any of my criticisms or questions.
- I haven't already "done the work" myself.
- I didn't honestly search the resources he would've used.
- This is all my fault because I didn't consult "trusted friends and counselors" or "helpful resources."
- I'm supposed to distrust myself in my personal study, but only if I reach the conclusions he wants. If I don't, I'm being dishonest.
- Perhaps I'll do better next time around.
- He's not interested in answering my questions, despite the fact that he sat in my living room and told us he was the Bible answer man.
- He's now just going to provide me with some wonderful resources that will work, but only if I'm honest with myself. If they don't work, it must mean I wasn't honest about it.
- He was devastated to hear that I want to change his mind.
- We made vows to the church and because we've changed our minds and want to change other people's minds, this is shameful.
- He presents his straw man of secular morality.
- I must have a new religion because I still have a sense of right and wrong.
- I've caused so much pain for numerous people.
- All his guilt trips, power plays, cop-outs, innuendo, character assassinations, and slanderous comments delivered behind my back are done out of love.
M'kay. In retrospect we probably should've just broken off at this point with a terse reply indicating we no longer wished to communicate with him as it was apparent he was not interested in dialogue.
Around the time we received this email, Mrs. Apostate's KJV-only Independent Fundamentalist Baptist mom finally broke her silence since she had informed her of our apostasy. In the course of communication with her and others that had spoken with her, we discovered that the pastor had been telling people that I was out to destroy him and his ministry. Obviously turnabout was not fair play in his mind. Again, this is an area where many Christians just can't see the parallels. It's telling just how insecure and threatened he seems to have felt. It appeared to me he was no longer worried about me or my eternal soul. From where I was standing, this was now about his own self-preservation.
After hearing I was being demonized by this guy and following the above email, my wife and I decided we'd had just about enough of this. We were generally pissed. I had invested a lot of time and energy engaging him and he had done nothing but avoid any substantive discussion whatsoever. The next day, Mrs. Apostate was ready to jump in and call him out on some of this.
I would like to thank you for contacting my parents, and encouraging them. I have just received my first bit of communication from my mom this morning through e-mail. I do believe that you and others from [the church] are the reason for that. I hope that it will continue too. I know I have shared my concerns over them in the past about the doctrine they believe. Although we can no longer agree with the beliefs you hold so dear, there is no denying the love and concern that flows from the people of [the church]. I know that you would say that it is the holy spirit, but I believe that you all are just wonderful people. This probably does not make much sense in light of my new beliefs, but I would be happy if my parents joined [the church], as I see it as a vast improvement in where they are now.
[The Apostate] is planning on e-mailing you a more detailed response, but I wanted to send you my thoughts as well. I don’t think that [The Apostate] expected you to address everything in his e-mail. One or two things would be nice though, but you are throwing out all of his questions. You mention that it was almost 7500 words. That sounds like a lot when you put it that way, but it was only 17 pages of a word document. I was able to read over it again in about an hour before he sent it to you. I know that you would have to study it and not just read it, but my point is that it is not that long. You are sending us two books, one of which is 400+ pages. I would like to ask you to reconsider addressing his e-mail, or at least one or two pages of it.
I realize that we are hurting basically everyone we know. I hate this, but please try to look at it from our perspective. What possible motive would we have to do this? My dad has not spoken to me since I told him. My mom is avoiding [The Apostate] at all costs during work [note to the reader: I work with my mother-in-law]. As you said, the elder wives are weeping over us. We did not want this! Do you think we would have joined [the church] seven years ago if we saw this in our future? Why would we have chosen the only church in [our area] that actually practices church discipline if we were just pretending?
Who is my new god? I do not have one, as I believe that all gods are from the minds of men. I always believed that Zeus, Allah, & others were made up. Now I believe that Yahweh is too. As to the point about how I determine right from wrong, it is called empathy. I don’t want to kill, steal, or cheat, because I can put myself in that person's place. I know how I would feel if someone did those things to me, and so I don’t do it to others. I know that you will call this relativism, but I call it common sense. In regards to your question about good and evil… You see, I could never wrap my mind around how if god created all things, than how could he have not been the creator of evil? I no longer have to ponder that difficult question anymore, or push it to the back of my mind. When I hear about horrible stories on the news, like the Jerry Sandusky scandal, I don’t have to believe that it was ordained from eternity past, and will bring glory to god somehow.
I know I have always been the quiet type in the past, but that is changing. Things make so much more sense to me now, that I feel the need to share them. I don’t like that everyone seems to think that I have been brainwashed by my husband. For the first time in my life, I am finally thinking for myself.
Note her line "I believe that all gods are from the minds of men." He will seize upon this as some kind of "gotcha" admission when he assumes that this statement can't be reconciled with my stated agnosticism, and thus, he will imply that he had caught us in a lie. It was quite the eye-rolling moment for us. It still amazes me how much pedantry exists over the distinction between these two terms that in most cases lack any practical difference in their outworking. Many will argue that they are not mutually exclusive.
His reply came later that day:
Dear [Mrs. Apostate],
Although my heart continues to break over your and [The Apostate's] apostasy, I appreciate your candor, and your expressions of gratitude. There is, however, no longer any question in my mind where you and [The Apostate] stand in regard to your new system of belief (communicated Saturday as agnosticism, communicated below as atheism). As [phileo guy] and I attempted to share last Saturday, we will begin walking through the steps of church discipline, all with a view to your and [The Apostate's] repentance and restoration.
We love you, [The Apostate], and the children very much.
Well, that was a giant middle finger if we'd ever seen one. On top of that he had concluded that he knew everything he needed to know about our "new system of belief." I wish he would've provided some insight into that. Having been stripped of the standard go-to answers Christianity had always provided me with, I was still working much of that out myself at that point.
I was going to include the entire session of elders on my next correspondence. As I felt they needed to be let in on this so they could get a sense of what their senior pastor was doing on their behalf.
"Something to chew? You've sent me an almost 7500 word email with about 100 questions and assertions–– most of which appear to stem from an extremely skeptical and anti-supernatural posture."
In all fairness, you’re sending us a 480 page book written by a professional theologian to professional theologians. I doubt my little 7500 word email would take you nearly as long to read and respond to. I’ve read some Warfield before. It was his polemical writing on infant baptism that helped convince me to leave the Baptist denomination. I’m quite certain the book you’re sending us will take a great deal of time not only to read and digest, but also respond to. I’m sure you’re busy. So am I.
My posture was neither extremely skeptical nor anti-supernatural. A theological liberal would be able to easily dismiss every one of my objections and would likely agree with them. Your position does not grant you that luxury. If my posture were anti-supernatural I would’ve discussed miracles like the parting of the Red Sea or the plagues themselves. I did not. I addressed claims in the text that were decidedly un-supernatural and took them at face value.
Sure, you can solve every one of those problems by attributing it to a miracle of God, but that’s not what the text does. The text does not say that firewood appeared on the ground every morning alongside the manna. It does not say that God miraculously healed Egypt after the Hebrews left. It does not say that God kept making new livestock appear after every plague. It does not say the angels came down and zapped all the poo from the encampments away. It does not say that Aaron and his sons were given super-speed like the Flash so they could perform all the daily sacrifices for hundreds of thousands of people. It does not say that God wiped clean every scrap of tangible evidence that these events ever occurred and scrubbed the minds of every Egyptian capable of writing an alternate account.
"Even if I thought it necessary to answer this barrage of questions, there simply isn't enough time to do so. You may view this as a cop-out, but it would take me hours upon hours to answer this first installment of your questions. I'm sure you didn't really expect me to do this."
I do kind of see it as a cop-out and it should be easy to see why. I did not ask difficult questions. And you did not even attempt to answer a single one. But no, I did not expect you to attempt to answer all of them. You’ll note that in my email I even included the caveats “I’m just throwing some stuff out as a starting point so you can see why…” and “I look forward to hearing your thoughts if you wish to share them.” I expected you to respond pretty much the way you did, but I hoped you would at least take another long hard look at the texts in question.
This is very disappointing from my perspective. I put a great deal of time and effort into an attempt to show you where I'm coming from and in response you've been nothing but dismissive. You don't want to hear me. You want to construct whatever convenient narrative you can envelop me in to try make sense of what happened within the framework and possibilities you will permit yourself to see.
What I'm hearing is that you're not interested in even considering my objections. You refuse to engage me on the points I wish to discuss. You will not approach me as an equal. You want to dictate the terms of the discussion and preach at me. This is not a dialogue. Your sermons are available online. If I want to hear them I can access them.
"Moreover, our assumptions and starting points are so different, [The Apostate]. And my sitting down and studying these texts with critical / exegetical commentaries, and giving you what I think are sufficient answers (yes, I've studied the history and theology of the Pentateuch), will be little different than you honestly searching for the answers yourself."
So now you’re implying that I did not honestly search for answers myself? That must be it, right? I just wasn’t doing an honest search. I wanted so very much to turn my life upside down, risk all my friendships, bring people emotional hurt, strain relationships with my family, have my children cut off from their friends and grandparents and run the risk of having my irrational mother-in-law attempt to sabotage my career so I could…so I could… so I could what exactly?
Honesty is precisely the reason I find myself in this position. You’re so focused on me as a bad guy here when I’m the one who’s actually trying to be honest and is taking crap from 90% of the people I know and love for it, not that I don’t understand why they’re doing it. This is without question the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I’ve enjoyed very little of it thus far. [Mrs. Apostate] and I can count on one hand the people we feel like we can have normal human contact and conversations with now. This is taking a serious toll on us. On top of that we have to hide all this pain we’re feeling and vitriol directed toward us so our children don’t think their friends and family all hate us now. So here’s to the people that keep their mouths shut and don’t ever seriously question their dogma so they can stay comfortable where they are and avoid making others uncomfortable with them.
I’m really beginning to regret my honesty and am starting to wish I would’ve just moved my family to another state and left you all with your pristine image of me. No, instead I’m forcing you to imagine me burning in torment forever and ever in a lake of fire that your god will cast me into because I wasn’t chosen from before the foundations of the world like you were. Don’t worry. He’ll be sure to make you glorify and praise him forever for doing it. At least, that’s what Jonathan Edwards says.
"Perhaps you will see my unwillingness to answer your questions as some kind of a concession. It's not. It's just an unwillingness, at this point, to engage at the micro-level (ie massive emails with dozens of questions)."
And this highlights the problem. As I see it, the devil is in the details (no pun intended). These “macro” approaches only pretend that there aren’t obvious problems in text. You might presuppose that the set of axioms contained in the Bible is the word of God, but what good is that presuppositional approach if the very axioms it seeks to protect are themselves inconsistent? In my view it's not only circular, but it won’t stand up to the most rudimentary reductio ad absurdum.
"In your crisis of faith - while you were "searching for answers" - did you search the resources that you know would have been those that I would have looked to (you are very familiar with our tradition)? Did you ever distrust yourself in your personal study, just in case your doubts and skepticism were clouding your reading?"
Wow. If only I had thought of that! I think you know that I did. I’m pretty sure that’s why I stayed in so long. Candidly, I was recently having doubts that maybe the points in my last email to you weren’t as solid as I thought. You've done nothing but help put those doubts to rest.
"From my perspective, if I was having massive doubts about the Faith that I held dear for 20 years, a Faith that has been vigorously defended by some of the sharpest minds in the world, I would have gone to my trusted friends and counselors and looked for answers and helpful resources. I would have sought counsel through the best books that Christendom has produced or is currently producing. My understanding is that you've done neither."
My trust in people’s ability to honestly address my questions is severely diminished when it becomes clear to me that they lack discernment on particular issues. Thus far I’ve had nothing but confirmation that my misgivings were correct. That’s OK. Just keep blaming me. I’m the one who’s broken. Pretty soon you’ll have to find a reason to fully despise me so you can justify the notion of imagining me burning in hell.
And forgive me if I’m not up on the best books that Christendom is currently producing. In my defense, Christendom’s track record isn’t exactly spectacular when it comes to making falsifiable claims that can later be verified. I seem to recall reading Chrysostom and Athanasius argue from their biblically-based cosmology that the earth floated on water nearly 700 years after the Greeks had pretty much figured out it was a sphere. At least Augustine was willing to admit that the earth might be a sphere, but then he said there certainly couldn’t be people living on the antipodes because there was no way they could've migrated there after the flood. And what is it that Christians have been confessing for hundreds of years? “He ascended into heaven.” Yet when Christians confess that today they don’t have in mind at all what Christians had in mind 1,500 years ago. That’s because they have satellite TV, have seen pictures of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and now know better.
This has left me bewildered. I just don't understand it.
And this is why I’m reluctant to just cut off our communication. I understand that you don’t have an easy category in your theology for this right now. I’m sure you’ll eventually find one. You’ll try to reason that I was just faking all along. I was demon possessed. I was a tare sown among the wheat. In time your mind will block out all the time, money, love and devotion I’ve given to the people of [the church] over the years because those might be interpreted as marks that I was a true believer and you won’t be able to accept that. It can’t possibly be that I’m right. Your mind simply will not allow it.
"Perhaps you will spend some time with the resources that we will send you now. But please know that I'm not looking to debate with you and spend hours responding to your myriad questions (something that you mentioned you weren't interested in doing either, if I recall correctly). Rather I hope to provide you with some helpful resources in order to answer some of your deep philosophical and theological questions, if you are interested."
This is sounding more and more like a one-way street, but sure. I’m interested to see if it actually addresses my concerns. I’m reluctant to let you write me off that easily now. I was content to part ways before and leave you and everyone else alone about their beliefs. I was content to try to re-forge our relationship on the basis of human experience outside of religion. I know you have some unbelieving friends and family, right? I’m beginning to see that may not be possible, but I may be able to make you at least moderate your views a bit by the time it’s all said and done.
At the very least you might learn something about how to handle apostates in an age when the church can't just burn them. There will be more, by the way. It's only a matter of time. Information is too readily available these days and nonbelievers are one of the fastest growing groups in the country, especially in the younger generations. Who knows. Maybe you'll luck out and like Judas I'll fall headlong in a field and have my guts bust open. No, wait. He hanged himself, right? I can't seem to keep the story straight in my head for some reason.
If I sound a bit angry and jaded it's because I am. I feel like I've been lied to and have lied to myself for years. I'm still a little raw and thinking that people now see me as some terrible monster who is brainwashing his wife, causing dozens of families pain and seeking to take down a very sincere and loving pastor is only adding to the strain.
I've made mistakes in this. I'll make more. But this is the only way I know how to go about this with any integrity. And yes that word has meaning to me. We tried everything we could think of to soften this blow short of changing geography. We waited patiently for you come home from your sabbatical because we didn't want to burden [the associate pastor]. We waited for a bit after your father passed to give you time to mourn. I tried as best I could to teach within the confines of the WCF so that I could avoid being accused of sedition. We made sure the session knew about this before we spoke to anyone else in the church and gave you the opportunity to tell our church friends before we could to avoid additional appearances of impropriety. We did the best we thought we could.
I know you'll probably keep beating the, "why didn't you come to us earlier?" drum, implying that we had some unstated, ulterior motive. We didn't. It's done. Let's move on.
"[The Apostate], I was encouraged by your telephone apology for the tone of your email. However, I was devastated to hear you tell me, your pastor and friend, that it's your mission in our interaction to rescue me and my family from a religion that is damaging and impede's the progress of humanity."
OK. Let me address this right now in writing and for the record because I have reason to believe that the words I spoke to you over the phone in a conversation in which I was trying to express compassion and empathy toward you in private have apparently now been shared with who-knows-how-many others in a way I never intended. It appears that those words are already being twisted to be used against me to paint me as some kind of demon possessed monster that’s out to ruin you. That’s a gross mischaracterization of what I was intending to communicate.
First, I do not consider you my pastor. I think I’ve been pretty up front about that. I do consider you my friend, in spite of this betrayal of confidence that apparently confirmed my mother-in-law’s most insane theories about me. The words I spoke were out of a heart of compassion toward you. I realize you may think I’m incapable of that now.
I believe you do a great deal of good in what you do in your occupation. But you cannot fault me for my perspective. I really do think that your current brand of Christianity has some aspects that are indeed damaging to people and do impede humanity’s progress. There’s a multi million-dollar "museum" in Kentucky that stands as a testament to this fact. There are school boards and legislatures all over the Southeast and Midwest that are controlled by people that share your views that are seeking to dumb down this country’s young people and send us back to the Dark Ages in the name of preserving their interpretation of a sacred text.
My comments to you were out of a desire to see you eventually give up some of that baggage and maybe help others see their way out of it as well. I was also trying to make a point that you've apparently missed. My comments were not out of a desire to destroy you, but that’s apparently what my words became when emotional people shared things with other emotional people without giving the benefit of the doubt and seeing the humanity in others.
Please extend my appreciation to [one of the elders] for reaching out to my mother-in-law. If you’ll recall I was the one who made that request out of concern for her mental health and wellbeing. Of course, she now sees me as even more of a sinister creature as a result of that conversation, but if that’s what she needs to do to maintain a relationship with her daughter and grandchildren I’m fine with it. I do sincerely appreciate [an elder's wife]'s efforts especially. I really wish everyone could express that level of compassion and understanding.
This sort of reaction only further illustrates my point. The Christians I know with a doctrine of man capable of still seeing me as a human being and not a filthy apostate threatening their worldview are the ones who’ve had the easiest time dealing with this. The ones who see me solely as a hellbound reprobate…not so much.
"[The Apostate], you and [Mrs. Apostate] stood before our congregation many years ago and made vows. You declared before God and the congregation that you believe the scriptures to be the Word of God, that you trust in Jesus Christ, that you promise to submit to the leadership, and that you promise keep the peace and purity of the church. We did not force you to make those vows. You made them of your own volition. We have loved you and your children for many, many years. You are now forsaking all of these vows and promises, and encouraging me (and presumably others) to do the same. This is shameful."
We took those vows with full sincerity. We meant them. We’ve since changed our minds. Do I need to forward you another copy of our letter? I’m pretty sure we made it clear in no uncertain terms that we could no longer keep those vows. Your bringing them up is irrelevant at this point. It is your view that what we’re doing is shameful. In my view it is being honest about who we now are and what we now believe. We can’t help what we believe. We can’t make ourselves believe the doctrines you hold dear any more than you could make yourself believe in Hinduism or Buddhism. Are you going to tell a Jehovah's Witness who took vows before his Kingdom Hall that it’s a shameful thing when he forsakes those vows and converts to your beliefs and seeks to do the same to his former JW friends?
It strikes me as a pretty big double standard for you to regularly encourage your parishioners to actively seek to convert people to your way of thinking and then turn around and try to shame people who would attempt to do the same to you. You’re trying to convert me back to your view and would no doubt jump at the chance to turn my family back against me. But if I were to express that notion toward you, you would be horrified. You needed to understand this and my comments in our phone conversation that you found so devastating were a well-meant attempt at bringing this idea home to you so that you could maybe understand how I feel. It wasn’t quite the stroke of genius I thought it was apparently and has snowballed into who-knows-what.
"And the way I understand things, your new belief system is rooted in one of two things, relativism (morality and truth are subjective, and so to "each his own") or a specific religion that views other belief systems as immoral. Clearly, you hold to the latter in your attempt to undermine my faith (and others') faith in Christ. But who is the God of your new religion? Who is the judge of right and wrong? Who determines what is good and evil? Who determines that Christianity is evil or abusive or damaging to children? It must be you."
You have a straw man view of secular moral philosophy. And your god isn’t exactly the best standard of morality, by the way. I’d love to bring up a plethora of examples, but I’ve got every reason to believe you’d ignore them like you’ve ignored my other comments.
Even if your god were the standard of morality, he’d still have to clearly communicate his wishes. The fact that his followers can’t seem to agree on a great deal of what he wants just illustrates how problematic your standard is and just how relative and subjective your own belief system is even within your own tradition. Don't worry. I’m not going to send you a book on secular moral philosophy now. Why should I? You won’t even address the paltry little email of a layman.
"FYI, this has been by far the hardest week of my ministry. Pastoral visits, phone calls, letters, and conversations have been manifold over these matters. My precious wife, and other elders' wives have shed numerous tears over your apostasy. My own heart has been extremely burdened for you both, and for [The Apostates' kids]. Though you no longer claim to believe in the crucified and risen Christ, and in biblical prayer, we will, full of faith, be praying for our beloved [Apostates]. We love you. Please be assured that everything I've said flows from a heart of love and eyes full of tears."
I’m deeply sorry that this has brought you and others so much pain and misery. You may doubt my sincerity, but it was never our intent to hurt anyone. We knew this would not be the easy way out for any parties involved, but you must see that this pain and misery is a result of the religious system you find yourself in. I know you and others genuinely care for us and see us as throwing our souls away. I get that. I grieve over that. I've lost much sleep over the hurt I’m causing people. That’s the reason why I wanted to speak to you on the phone and apologize the other day. I could sense the pain. But I’m not going to blame myself for it. It is not my beliefs (or lack thereof) that is the cause of your pain. It’s yours. Is your theology not robust enough to handle this? If not, why not? I think it is and I think you and everyone else will come to terms with this eventually. It will just take time.
I assume you’ve been sharing our correspondence with the rest of the session, but in the event that’s not the case, I’m carbon copying them on this one because I want this on the wider record especially as respects our phone conversation. I'm not quite sure what's going around. I've been given assurances that I would not be slandered, but I realize that's difficult in an emotional situation like this.
This was his reply later that day. Note how his tone changed now that the entire session of elders was seeing our correspondence. He also returned to a smaller font size.
Dear [The Apostate],
Thanks for your honest feedback. And thank you for holding your news until we returned from sabbatical. I had already thought that you probably did this out of consideration to me and to our church. I appreciate that.
I suspected that you would respond as you did–– no surprises there. Like you, I've never been through something like this before, and it's hard to know how to properly navigate these stormy waters. Of course, concerning biblical church discipline, I am certain how we must proceed. It's the interpersonal part that is so difficult. I've already thought of ways I would have approached it differently. I apologize for any confusion that I've caused you and [Mrs. Apostate] in my attempt to help you (though I know, from your new perspective, it is I who need the help). If I didn't give you the benefit of the doubt regarding our phone conversation, it's only because I know what I heard, and it was alarming–– not only for me and my family, but for the wider church family.
We will be in touch soon.
The session must have decided to take the senior pastor off point, because the next day we received the following email from the associate pastor:
Dear [The Apostate],
Perhaps given the emotional level of the discussion it would be best to give this some time before any further engagement between us all. It is obvious that both sides feel deceived and hurt. You and [Mrs Apostate] feel your family has deceived by Christian teaching and of course hurt by the serious relational strain this is having on you and your children. As a result, you are reluctant to trust and respect our positions and decisions. We too feel deceived and hurt wishing that both of you would have come to those who care so deeply for you in the midst of the struggle rather than after it was already firmly settled in your mind. As a result, from our perspective it is hard for us to trust you.
Given this, I personally am not sure of the wisdom behind firing questions back and forth at one another at this moment in time, nor am I sure of what that should look like in light of the delicate nature of these circumstances. Again from our point of view this should have been done as you were wrestling and not after the fact. Part of this is because it appears that you want to have heated debate. Having been engaged in formal and informal debates with family, friends, students, parents, and co-workers over the past 20 years, it rarely is fruitful when emotions are high. Even when emotions are not high it rarely leads to a change in position. Due to things being firmly settled in your mind you will think that our answers are not satisfactory and when we ask you questions about your positions you will provide answers which we will think are not satisfactory. So the problem becomes one of presuppositions and yours are very different now. From our perspective that is one reason why it might not be helpful to engage in discussion at a micro-level. Debating specific and particular textual issues one by one will probably not be fruitful right now, especially in light of how everything has played out and the “rawness” that many feel.
I could be wrong, but due to all of this, I think some time would be best and then perhaps we can re-engage this discussion in some agreed upon way. In the meantime please be reminded that out of love for your family, from our perspective, we must continue to proceed with the disciplinary process. As a part of that, out of care for our flock, we must biblically shepherd and lead them through this hard time. We hope that you are still interested in looking at some of the resources. The book on canon formation is on the way. We love, miss, and are praying for all of you to come back to “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.”
With Much Love,
He made some reasonable points. I wrote a reply to this wherein I addressed his presuppositional nonsense, but since it was clear that nobody was listening and I'd likely just give the appearance of being off the rails, I decided to leave it unsent.
I do want to point out just how weird some of the stuff in that last paragraph sounds. "We must continue to proceed with the disciplinary process" in particular is a line that just jumps out as being a little creepy. We later found out that, "out of care for our flock, we must biblically shepherd and lead them through this hard time" meant "We must essentially forbid people from the church from ever having any meaningful contact or communication with you." It turned out "the disciplinary process" entailed sending us a strongly-worded letter.
About a week later, we received the book Canon Revisited by Michael J. Kruger in the mail and I began reading it and writing a response. In the mean time, the below letter came via snail mail, providing my wife and I with some unexpected mirth (click to embiggen).
Around mid-December I received an email from the associate pastor asking if I had read Canon Revisited and if I wanted them to send the other one by Warfield. I told him not only had I read it, I had written a response. However, I was not interested in doing so for any more books they might send me. He said he'd come by soon and pick up the book along with my response. He came to the house a couple of weeks later. We had a pleasant chat at the door and he was quite cordial. Nothing substantive was discussed.
My response to Canon Revisited can be found here. It's about 6,000 words long, but basically I didn't find it particularly compelling. I get the sense that either the pastor didn't understand the objections I had shared with him about canon formation, or he hadn't actually read the book first before sending it because it wasn't actually written to address those objections. Perhaps it was a combination of both. Regardless, I engaged the book as best as I was able and discussed some of those "macro-level" issues he was so insistent we focus on. As you will see, it was all for naught.
Four days later I received the following from the senior pastor:
Dear [The Apostate],
It was with sadness that I read over your comments on "Canon Revisited." Of course, I appreciate the fact that you read the book–– not many in your position would have. But it is clear to me that there is a deeply skeptical and even cynical heart driving your doubt. [The Apostate], while we could argue all day about epistemological grounds, presuppositions, and biases that we all live with to some degree or another, it is obvious that you are as "biased" and "certain" in your doubt of and disdain for the Christian Faith as any Christian believer may be in his faith in, and love for the triune God and His inspired Word. Christ lived, died and rose again in the first century. He blessed and supernaturally superintended the formation of the Canon. Even with all the mystery in the process, I believe that. Christ radically changed my life 20 years ago (I know that you call this an emotional experience). He answers my prayers in ways that are gloriously unexplainable apart from the truth of God's Word. You may call it superstition or emotionalism or intellectual weakness, but I will, along with Scripture, and Christians throughout the ages, call it faith. I recognized that there is much mystery and difficulty wrapped up in history and the doctrine of Scripture. None of it has, however, caused me to question the veracity of it all and to throw out the whole. Things niggle at me from time to time in the study while studying Scripture, but the answers I receive from commentators or theologians or historians almost always satisfy. When they, at times, do not completely satisfy, I'm happy to trust that a good answer will be provided in time (and I'm not talking about the fundamentals of the faith, here, but rather, small issues that emerge from time to time). I suppose this is why I would have hoped you would have come to us before you were so utterly entrenched in your doubt.
I have written, re-written, and erased a dozen paragraphs. My desire is not to cross swords on these issues. I suppose, at the end of the day, what I really want to do is to express my love to you, [Mrs. Apostate], and the children, and to let you know that we miss you very much.
And there you have it. I gave this man hours of reading and responding to substantive issues and objections, including the ones he insisted upon, and now he didn't want to "cross swords." Well, I guess the joke was on me. What a sucker I was. Please note, dear reader, that at no point in this entire exchange has he or anyone else provided anything of substance or invested any time whatsoever in addressing my objections. None.
First he had all the answers to my objections. Then when I provide some to discuss, he insists we focus on what he wants to discuss. Then when I do that, he decides he doesn't want to engage anymore. All he offers now is bald assertions and an appeal to his subjective experience. Hell, I didn't need someone with a doctorate in theology to give me that. I could've gotten that from nearly every back-row baptist in the southeast US.
Needless to say, I was not impressed.
I did not expect you to have a positive reaction to reading my comments on the book, but those were my honest, candid thoughts. I understand your lack of desire to “cross swords” over these issues. I can see how it may come down to a simple cost/benefit analysis. Based on the way in which you presume to know the condition of my heart along with your tu quoque, it appears you have judged me to be too far gone and therefore not worth much more effort than a brief appeal to your subjective experience, an admission that you regularly engage in confirmation bias and your expression of love. While I can’t really blame you for that, I also can’t help but feel a bit slighted after putting forth a good bit of effort.
That aside, I want to address something that has come up in virtually every correspondence and conversation that you have had with me over this. You keep repeatedly lamenting the fact that I didn’t come forward earlier, as though that would have somehow resulted in my remaining in Christianity. I don’t understand this. It seems to me that your own theology runs counter to the notion that coming forward earlier would’ve made any difference in the end result. I know in addressing the subject of apostasy with the congregation you brought up passages like 1 John 2:19. Doesn’t this passage suggest that coming to you earlier would’ve only prolonged the process at best? If we were not of you, going out from you was inevitable. People like former missionary Ken Daniels did exactly what you are talking about and in the end all it did was create more confusion, heartache and hurt feelings. As far as I’m concerned it was the difference between pulling off the band aid slowly and ripping it off all at once.
According to the Bible, doubt is a sin. No one ever commends Thomas for his skepticism. He’s known as “doubting Thomas” not the guy who had a reasonable expectation of evidence to verify an extraordinary claim. Doubt is a sign of weakness. I had every reason to believe that admitting to sexual sin would’ve been met with more understanding and sympathy than expressing the kind of doubts I was having. I was a respected member of the church. Think and say whatever you want, you will not convince me that had I come forward with my doubts the respect and esteem I enjoyed would not have been diminished. A cloud of suspicion would have always been around me from that point on, regardless of how few people were in the loop. Do you not see what I felt I had to lose had I made my doubts known early on? Can you not see how the church as an institution is set up to squelch even minor outward expressions of doubt and dissent and to purge those who would express such things? Whether or not you see things this way is irrelevant. This was my perception.
While I will gladly acknowledge my skepticism, I deny the charge of cynicism. I must say that I find that repeated accusation odd coming from someone who believes human beings are born depraved and that the thoughts of men’s hearts are only evil continually. If anything it is my overly optimistic outlook that has resulted in much of the frustration that I have endured over the past couple of months. I thought, and still do, that other people I know might have the courage to take a long hard look at the claims of Christianity without assuming those claims must be true from the outset. I thought that, like me, they might reach the point where they would rather know what is real than simply remain comfortable. I thought there might be other people who were willing to face the fears of losing friends, alienating family and admitting they were wrong. I thought there might be others who could fight through the uneasiness and stare down the empty threats of eternal damnation, hopelessness and despair. I recognize that it would take an even greater amount of courage and humility for a respected and well-connected member of the clergy to do this, but I still think it’s possible. Others have done it and there was support available for them. While you may not ever be willing to go that far, it is still my hope that you will moderate your views someday.
You’ve conveyed a degree of sensitivity to my frank remarks in the past, so please know that the preceding paragraphs were not intended to be a spurning of your expression of love. Quite the contrary, it is partly out of a desire to reciprocate love that I even bothered to enter into a dialogue with you in the first place. I felt I owed you that much. That is one reason why I put the effort into reading and responding to the topic you chose rather than insisting on discussing things that I was concerned with. I did this even after I was told the whole exercise would be a pointless waste of time. I did not heed what now appears to have been a prescient warning. That would have been cynical. I will also choose to believe that your expression is genuine and sincere and not merely because you think God commands it. It would be easy for me to call motives into question, given what I know of Christian doctrine, but again, that would be cynical.
Several of the folks from [the church] have thought it necessary to petulantly “de-friend” us on Facebook. Others we were close to have cut off contact. Only one (other than you and [the associate pastor]) has even bothered to reach out to me rather than approaching [Mrs. Apostate]. Of course, none of this is surprising since they were reminded by their pastor that, as apostates, we are worse than the people who crucified their savior. In spite of this, we still love and miss many at [the church] including you, [his wife] and the kids. There is more I wanted to say, but I fear more words will likely only make things worse. We wish you all the best.
Not content to give me the last word, his reply followed.
Dear [The Apostate],
Though you will understand that our hearts continue to break over these matters, and thus will always feel the need to remember you, [Mrs. Apostate], and the children in our earnest prayers, I want to express that I sincerely appreciate your candor and overall friendly tone in this correspondence. I do want to comment, however, that though my faith/experience is subjective as a thing in itself, it is directed to that which is objective, namely, the first century person and work of Jesus Christ, the witness of the apostles, and their first century written testimony. If Christ was proven to have never existed or to have never been raised from the dead, I would indeed be a man most to be pitied. In addition, my comments about your coming to us sooner are pastoral and from a human perspective, since I do not pretend to know the secret things of God. From my limited and finite perspective, this situation could have been remedied. And as long as you and [Mrs. Apostate] are breathing, I will pray for a change.
This evening our session will be discussing the next step of church discipline, and I know you are not surprised by this. But please know that if you ever begin to honestly "doubt" your doubts and skepticism, and if you ever begin to "question" your disbelief in Christ, we are here for you ... whether a week from now, or twenty years from now. As you know, the whole goal of church discipline is restoration to fellowship with Christ and the church.
Your Humble Servant,
I have a few observations on this last email. Based on what I knew of his personality, I figured there was no way he was going to give me the last word. He needed a parting shot of some kind. I would've loved to have picked apart several of his statements, but I had already spent enough time communicating with someone who had never been listening anyway. By this time my wife and I were just ready to be done with this and she advised that I not respond any further.
Note that he tried to make some kind of loose historical argument for the resurrection, as if proving a first century Jew raised from the dead necessarily demonstrates the truth of Christianity. I've dealt with this claim elsewhere.
I found his sudden use of this supposedly objective "evidence" somewhat surprising, given that up to that point he had been taking a presuppositionalist position. He made no mention of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, which any good presupper should know is what is necessary to confirm the apostolic witness. That, in and of itself, is entirely subjective. Now, all of a sudden, it seemed that an inductive approach had merit to him. This was despite the fact that the book he had sent me and that I had responded to made extensive use of this tactic. He was not being at all consistent in his apologetic approach.
What made his statement so disingenuous was how he framed what it would take to convince him Christianity was false. He admits that one would have to prove (by his unstated standard of "proof") that Jesus Christ had never existed and that he had never been raised from the dead. Of course, this is no doubt impossible by his standard of proof. The most anyone could ever do is demonstrate that in all probability Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead. But when it comes right down to it, that's all we can really do for anything that happened in the past.
I'm sure he could see just how disingenuous this is if we were to re-frame it in the context of some other religion's supernatural claim. No, on second thought, I don't think he would. He's already shown a fondness for special pleading. Though I'm sure he would employ the same standard of proof for another religion's claims that I would employ for his. It seems extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence...unless it's his own extraordinary claim and the claim is inexorably linked to his paycheck, family, social structure, culture, etc. In that instance the burden of proof shifts dramatically.
The other observation I have is that he still didn't seem to understand my objection with respect to his view of predestination. According to his theology, my apostasy was foreordained from the before the foundation of the earth, and yet he kept wondering aloud why I didn't come to the elders first, as though this would have made any difference whatsoever. It's as though he recognized that it really is human effort that keeps people from leaving Christianity. His Baptist roots were showing.
If I were truly regenerate, if I had a heart that had been transformed by the Holy Spirit, all it would take is the simple gospel message and I would hear and respond. It wouldn't take reams of theology from the best minds in Christendom and the persistent social pressure applied by friends and like-minded clergy to keep me within the visible church. That's why I specifically cited 1 John 2:19, "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us."
I understood what he was saying that from his finite perspective he didn't know what means God might employ to keep me within the church. But we are talking about after the fact. We had already gone out from them. Thus we had shown that we did not belong to them. What had been done was done. Counterfactuals don't apply in a truly Calvinistic worldview. He seems to have been using this repeated lament about how I should've talked with one of them earlier to mask his thinly-veiled accusation that this was all my fault so he could absolve himself of any blame. Of course, he could do that just fine if he'd be consistent in his theology and just admit that his god had dammed me from the beginning.
I'll be the first to admit that correlation does not prove causation. However, my wife and I did find it interesting that after all this went down, the pastor felt the calling of God to move his family to another city to start a mission church. Apparently God felt there were not nearly enough True Churches™ in coastal cities in the southern United States, particularly in cities with a cost of living substantially higher than the US average and with areas where there are plenty of upper middle class white folks languishing in affluence and in need of the blessed hope of the gentrified gospel of John Calvin. With the pastor leaving, my wife and I wondered if we'd ever get our letter of excommunication now.
And then it happened. It seems four months was deemed sufficient time to allow for repentance, so on March 3, 2013, my wife and I received the below letter. After all that, we got four sentences. I was really hoping for something more official-looking that maybe had "Letter of Excommunication" across the top in Old English Text or something like that. You know, something I could put in a frame. Alas, we had to settle for this.
I devoted over 6 years of my time and talents (and around 13% of my pre-tax income) to this church and all I got was this lousy excommunication letter.