I mentioned previously that I’d attended an Alpha Course, a series of short seminars intended to help new Christians learn more about [a particular strain of] Christian doctrine and give them reasons to believe. I’ve finally started going through my recordings and jotting down notes about the experience.
Dig in, kids; this one’s going to be long. I’ve got 13 pages of notes to summarize just for the first session.
By the time I learned that there was an Alpha Course going on near where I live, I’d already missed the first two weeks. That disappointed me a bit; the first two weeks were about how we know who Jesus was (because of the manuscript evidence! hand-wave, hand-wave) and why he died (because sin separates us from God, and we needed a perfect sacrifice to wipe out sin! hand-wave, hand-wave), and it also involved a few icebreaker exercises where people got to know each other.
The group started out with about 15 people, though three or four ended up either coming just once more or never coming again. Our leaders were a husband and wife duo who were members of the church where the course was held, and they were generally interested in promoting discussion and giving answers to questions that were based on [their interpretation of] scripture and the views of the church. Oddly enough, for the first few session, they repeatedly said that there were no right or wrong answers; this attitude not-so-mysteriously vanished later on when we were picking over the finer points of Christian doctrine.
Because we promised to maintain confidentiality about the things we discussed, I won’t be using anyone’s real names. I’ll refer to our two leaders as John and Jane, and the group members by number.
Each week, we would watch a prerecorded lecture about a specific topic given by Nicky Gumbel, an Anglican priest who has been running Alpha courses since 1990, then discuss our thoughts about the subject. This week, it was about how someone knows they’re a True Christian™. Nicky spoke about how faith shouldn’t be based on feelings, since feelings are mercurial, but instead on facts (i.e., the Bible). He made a lot of bizarre assertions.
“Jesus is wanting to come in. If anyone hears his voice he’ll come in. Jesus doesn’t force his way into our lives.”
(Contrast this with the Old Testament God that Jesus supposedly is, who was constantly directly interfering in the lives of people and forcing his way into their view of the world.)
We know the Cross was effective because Jesus rose from the dead. if Jesus was buried and rose again, that means that everyone who puts their faith in him will rise again also.
(He had a bad habit of not explaining why such things were true, or how we know them.)
God promises to everyone who puts their faith in him that every chapter of life will be better than the one before.
(Does this mean that, if your life is getting worse, it’s your fault for not having enough faith?)
I’m always cynical about a free gift because I bet there’s a catch. … [Regarding Jesus’ crucifixion, w]e suspect there must be a catch. This gift is free, but not cheap – Jesus paid his life for it.
(Not so much, really. If Jesus is still alive, he hardly paid his life for it. And he’s supposedly an infinite being. He can’t lose anything, no matter how much he pays.)
There was also a strange moment where he equivocated heavily on the meaning of the word “faith.” He talked about faith in a person as equal to faithfulness in marriage or the Christian faith, making no distinction based on experience or evidence. He also bizarrely attributed Humanist goals, like a desire to improve the estate of people around the world, to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
He also gladly asserted that subjective experiences can be evidence of things in objective reality, and that there’s neither reason nor need to doubt your experiences. For example: “Your experience of a relationship with Jesus is evidence you’re a Christian. … Changes in our attitude, our outlook on life, our relationships, and our beliefs are evidence of our faith.” He made no distinction between the reality of a person’s faith and the truth of their beliefs.
After the video, we had a bit of a review of the previous two weeks which I’d missed. John talked about the first week, which was all about how we know who Jesus was. Apparently, this is primarily because of the earliest copies that we’ve found, how many copies of that there were, and what the time lapse was from when the events happened to the actual written testimony. The problems with using manuscript evidence as confirmation of the events in Jesus’ life are numerous, as explained by Bart Ehrman in his fantastic debate with Craig Evans on whether the scriptures misquote Jesus. Besides the issues of using copies of copies of copies of non-eyewitness testimony passed along verbally among people who had only ever heard of the events from a non-eyewitness third party, there’s the fact that no amount of manuscript evidence could ever possibly be evidence of the supernatural, which belief in the Biblical descriptions of Jesus’ life would require.
Besides the manuscripts, John said, there’s the famous trilemma brought up by C. S. Lewis – that Jesus is either Liar, Lunatic, or Lord (which I brought up upon his prompting; apparently nobody else was familiar with it). That is, it’s not enough to say that Jesus was a good moral teacher, because if he wasn’t actually God, his moral teachings would have no foundation, and thus Jesus must’ve either been a liar, crazy, or actually God.
In week 2, John said, Nicky reiterated about how we’re separated from God because of sin, and Jesus had to come down here so that he could die for our sins and bring us back to God. He explained how, in the Old Testament, God accepted animal sacrifices as a way of cleansing people of their sin, but the problem was that the sacrifices were imperfect and were rendered useless when people went on to continue sinning. He said that Jesus’ death was a perfect sacrifice (why, we were never told), and that anyone who accepted his sacrifice would be forgiven their sins.
After Woman #1 defined sin as anything that separates us from God, Jane asked the group how they would explain what sin is to someone who doesn’t know God. Man #1 (who never attended another meeting) described it as doing what you know is wrong, even in your heart. John mentioned there was a scriptural basis for that, at which point I mentioned a bit from the book of Romans – that the laws of God are supposedly written on the hearts of men (a bit of scripture that apologists love to use as a response to the fact that atheists don’t need God to be moral).
This led to a discussion about how God apparently reveals himself to everyone, which was news to me. Oddly enough, one of the unmentioned undercurrents of the discussion was that God judges people differently depending on whether or not they’ve ever heard the gospel, and that only people who’ve heard the gospel and rejected it are guaranteed not to go to heaven. I thought this was a perfect argument against sending missionaries out into the non-Christian world, but I didn’t bring it up at the time.
We also briefly talked about the fate of people who die unbelieving. Trying to be somewhat diplomatic, I think, John said:
We’re talking about people and what happens to them if they’ve never heard the word, and … none of us know. We don’t know what God does. We don’t know if those people before they die have some kind of meeting with God. We don’t know what’s been said to them. We just don’t know. But the Bible does tell us in Romans that people who haven’t heard the word will be judged according to what God has revealed to them in their hearts.
Never mind that he definitely does think he knows what happens to us heathens when we kick the bucket – that’s not a pleasant thing to talk about, so it’s best to imagine that every nonbeliever is magically saved at the last minute. Woman #2 said of us: “Well, if they don’t believe in God, what do they care about heaven for?” To be frank, ma’am, it’s not heaven we worry about; it’s that believers seem awfully cavalier about the whole “eternal torture for finite crimes” thing. That kind of bothers us.
At a couple points during the discussion, I noticed John saying some things I found laughable, but nobody else in the group seemed to pick up on them. For example, he claimed that there are no religions that say you get to go to heaven because you’re a good person. I suspect nobody in the group is quite as familiar with just how many religions there actually are as I am…
The discussion went on to talk about whether people can do bad things throughout their lives, but then accept Jesus and still go to heaven. When asked for examples of people who’ve lived lives of crime and then found Jesus, I offered up Jeffrey Dahmer. (They all laughed at this… apparently they didn’t know he’d become a born-again Christian.) Other members of the group asked whether people were really Christians if they went on sinning after accepting Jesus; I mentioned the idea that, per Romans 6, Christians are no longer supposed to desire to sin, though they’re definitely going to do it anyways.
Eventually, I brought up that, despite the insistence that we don’t know what happens to nonbelievers when they die, the book of Revelation says that they have a place in the lake of fire. John seemed a bit taken aback, but responded by saying that he wasn’t really saying that we don’t know what happens; just that we can’t know, for any specific person, whether or not they converted at the last minute.
The Bible does preach, and I believe that, that people who don’t accept God go to hell. I personally believe that. But I can’t say that that person, and that person, and that person were unbelievers and they’re going to hell. That was my point. I don’t think I have that ability.
Woman #3 asked about what judgment believers will face after death – whether they’ll be judged by their sins even if they’re saved. (I’m a little surprised that someone interested in become an evangelical Christian didn’t know the answer to this already.) I answered:
From my understanding of it, if you believe in Jesus, then you’re supposed to be saved, no matter how many sins you committed in your life, as long as your faith is true. And basically, the sins are wiped out in your record if you accept Christ.
John added that there are supposed to be two judgments: one for nonbelievers and one for believers, and that the believers will be rewarded differently based on their deeds in life. I won’t bore you with the details of this bit of the conversation; it takes up two of the thirteen pages of my notes. Suffice it to say that all the speculation I heard showed me that the others weren’t particularly familiar with what the Bible had to say on the subject, and so I decided to enlighten them:
Well, this is just what I’ve been taught about scripture, is that in Christ there is no north or south, and that everybody’s equal. And the idea that I’ve always heard is that when you’re judged, you’ll be presented with your sins, but if you’re a believer you won’t have to worry about them, because Jesus paid the price for them. And then you’ll be presented with the deeds you’ve done in your life that are the fruits of the spirit – the fruits of the faith; things like bringing other people to Jesus, dying as a martyr for the faith, and so on. You’ll be rewarded for them, but then you’re supposed to give the rewards back to Jesus so everyone’s still equal.
This seemed to satisfy the group, and after a brief chat about whether pets get to go to heaven (during which Jane suggested we read a book with a name she couldn’t remember), the subject changed to whether or not people had ever directly witnessed God but still didn’t believe in him. John brought up the example of the Israelites in Exodus, who were led across the wilderness by God physically manifesting as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, but who quickly turned to their newly-made idols as soon as Moses left the camp to go get the commandments from God on Mount Sinai. I brought up the story of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar from Luke 16:19-31, where the rich man being tormented in hell begs Abraham to allow Lazarus (who was in heaven) to go to earth and warn his family of the truth of hell, since “if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” But Abraham says that “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” I hear this story a lot from apologists who say that nothing God can do would ever convince a nonbeliever that he exists, and that it’s up to us to figure it out for ourselves.
Woman #4 eventually spoke up, launching into a lengthy, rambling rant about how she was raised in a nonreligious home, had never heard of God or the Bible (really? in America?), but had still somehow managed to become a believer; how she’d been to Israel and seen the Jews for Jesus at the Wailing Wall crying for Jesus to return, … and all sorts of other things I can’t even begin to figure out. Nobody really had any sort of response to what she said; I don’t think anyone was quite sure what her point was.
Woman #1 talked about why she thinks church is important: that even if we’re aware of sins we’re committing, there are always sins we might not even know are sins, so we need someone else to tell us what our sins are. This, along with many things Woman #1 said, bothered me to no end. She seemed determined to convince everyone that they were absolutely useless on their own; that they could only possibly be good people if they surrounded themselves with other believers, and that thinking for ourselves is a bad idea because the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God – one of the many anti-intelligence concepts for which we have the Bible to thank. We got into a discussion where I tried to inject a little bit of the concept of self-reliance… but it wound up going a little crazy:
Woman 1: Yeah. I mean, someone’s gotta help them understand that. We were talking about sins that you know of. But if there’s a sin you don’t know of, aren’t you supposed to get prayer for that, that you may have sinned out of omission? I don’t know I’ve sinned, but I don’t want God to hold this against me? That’s another issue.
Me: Well, I think that the idea is, even if you do sin, God won’t hold it against you because you’ve accepted Christ. He knows you’re going to screw up, but if you’re a believer, you’re not going to be in any danger because you’ve committed a sin as long as you repent of it.
Woman 1: But if you don’t know –
Man 2: The idea here is that you’re not repenting, you’re continuing to do it.
Woman 1: But you don’t even know it’s a sin. That’s why you need to be in a church, you need to be under some leadership to explain to you your actions that you may know or not know are separating you from God. And it’s hurting the church, you know, if you don’t know the lines of sin.
Me: There’s also the idea that everyone’s supposed to have a natural instinct for what God does and doesn’t want you to do. So even if nobody tells you, you’re supposed to be able to figure it out yourself.
John: I’ll just throw my two cents in. Again, no right or wrong, but for me, I’m never going to worry about sins I don’t know of. I’ve got enough sins I do know of…
Woman 1: Yeah, I know, I know, but that’s why we’ve got our leaders to say… I know. I understand.
John: I don’t think God – because we don’t understand… we look at our brains, and what, under 10% of our brain we know what it’s for? We don’t even understand ourselves. So I don’t think God is going to hold us accountable for things we don’t know. And, or, even our sins, as Mike said, when we accept Jesus as our savior, it’s done. Our sins are forgiven at that point. We are going to continue to sin, and some of them – and this is my belief – some of them may be habitual sins like I mentioned earlier: an alcoholic may die an alcoholic. They may be a Christian. They may never beat that. We don’t understand the spiritual realm. We don’t understand the spiritual influences. Paul says that. We don’t wrestle against flesh and blood – our own sins. We’re struggling against principalities and darkness and powers that we don’t see – the demon world. So, those sins, they get a stronghold, that’s why sin is so bad. They get a stronghold in our lives, and it may not be easy to give up. That does not separate us from heaven or Jesus Christ. Our sins don’t do that.
Eventually, I finally managed to get in a question that shed a little light on who I was. Or, at least, I tried, and it was quickly derailed:
Me: Now, what about somebody who was born again, convicted, who spends years and years testifying the faith to people, winning people over to Christ, and then gives up their faith?
John: I don’t know… what do you mean by “gives up their faith?”
Me: They stop believing.
John: Literally? Like, they actually stop believing? Well, what does everyone think about that?
Woman 6: Well, we don’t know why he gave up his faith. Like, you don’t know if he’s going to turn around and say, “well, I was wrong.” You know what I mean? It’s one of those things where we’ll never know. You’d probably be shocked by it, like, the same thing when, like, a pastor’s found doing… whatever whatever, you know, but it’s like, oh my goodness, you don’t know what’s going to happen to him in a year, two years, ten years.
Man 1: Like, what’s going to happen – like you know, all those Catholic priests molesting boys – what’s going to happen to them, are they saved?
Woman 2 and Woman 5: It doesn’t matter what sin it is – all sin is the same to God.
Woman 5: We can’t judge.
I was sitting there thinking… YES YOU CAN. YES. JUDGE THEM. PLEASE judge them. After more discussion about the pedophile priest scandal, I must’ve been fidgeting or something, because John asked: “Were you going to say something, Mike?”
And then it all came out.
Me: Well, the reason I asked that question is because that’s me.
John: What was your question?
Me: The question about a person who’s a born-again Christian for several years and then loses his faith.
John: Oh. Okay. … Was it an event?
(This was to be expected; most believers think you couldn’t possibly stop believing unless you had something horrible happen to you.)
Me: No. It’s not like becoming a Christian, where the idea is you have a conversion experience, where you’re convicted and you can tell right away. Losing your faith isn’t something that happens in an instant. For me, it wasn’t a matter of having bad experiences with my beliefs or anything like that.
John: Um… what precipitated it? I mean, I don’t want to get too deep into it.
Me: It’s kind of a long story.
Woman 6: Well, I think that happens. Obviously I don’t know your story – I don’t even know you – but, you know, I think that happens. Like, I’ve had an experience like that. I’m sure a lot of people have had an experience like that, where they’re just like, why do I even believe this? And I’ve been there too, so you just kind of throw everything out the window. But I think that’s just part of the process. I don’t think it’s over. I think that if you’ve had a relationship with Christ, maybe you’re just trying to work things out in your head and your heart, but I don’t think that it’s the end of the road.
Man 2: I would have to say the same thing, because I don’t think you’d be here. You’re obviously searching for some kind of answers.
(Ah, yes… the good old “you must be here because you’re looking for God” chestnut. Nope, sorry.)
Me: Well, I’m here because I’ve heard other people talk about the Alpha Course and I thought it would be interesting to see what people believed and why they believe it.
Woman 6: Yeah, I just… I just think it’s part of the process. I would never say it’s a bad thing, necessarily, I just think it’s part of it.
Woman 3: Having doubts, and um… I was at a funeral today for a 22-year-old woman that died. And the priest was saying, you could get angry, this or that. But that’s emotions. You can still have faith in God whether you think you hate God or hate the experience or the moment of the death of a 22-year-old that shouldn’t have happened, or whatever.
(Nope. Never hated God. Not applicable.)
Me: It’s not even that, really. I didn’t stop believing for emotional reasons. I stopped believing because I tried to investigate the authenticity of Christianity and the history of the Bible and the development of the church and all this stuff, and the more I looked at it, the less I could find that confirmed the things the Bible said. I mean… I missed the first week here where we talked about how we know who Jesus is, but the idea of lunatic, liar, or lord, which is the C. S. Lewis thing – well, the fourth option is that he’s a legend; that there was a real person, but that the stories kind of evolved off of that.
John: But, one of the things he said in the first class is that all historians believed that he existed.
Me: Well, that he existed, yeah. But exactly what his life was like? For example, outside of the Bible, there isn’t anything from the time of his life that was written about him.
John: Well, there’s one.
Me: Well, it was written after his death.
John: Yeah. And that’s one of the things… we have nothing from that time frame. All the documents that we have, that’s at least what we have…
Me: Well, there are quite a few documents from that time frame. There are people who wrote histories of the city of Jerusalem that didn’t mention the things the Bible said about him, and things like that.
John: Oh, okay. I thought he was just saying the earliest found copies…
Me: There are a lot of documents that do mention him, but there aren’t any from the time that he was actually alive and going around.
John: Yeah. I mean… one of the things is, it’s called faith, and you have to have faith. I think that God gives us each 50%… well, that wouldn’t work. 49% reason to believe, and 49% reason to believe. And then the 1% is up to us.
Man 4 (pointing to the Alpha Course pamphlet): Well, I was just noticing this, and I highlighted it in here. It says, faith equals taking God’s promises and daring to believe in them.
Me: How do you decide what to have faith in, though? I mean, if faith is just assuming that something is true, how do you know that you’re having faith in the right thing? How do you know you’re making the right assumptions?
Man 2: What’s the alternative?
John: Well, there’s two options. There either is a god or there isn’t a god.
Me: Sure, but there’s all sorts of different ideas of god that people have faith in.
John: Right, but … so do you believe there’s a god?
Me: No, I don’t.
Woman 1: You don’t?
Woman 1: But you did?
Me: I did. Yeah, I was an evangelical Christian for about eight years.
Man 3: Well, one of the things we’ve brought up is we’re all at different stages in this group.
Jane: We’d like you to come back, Mike.
Me: I do plan to. I plan to come to the whole thing.
Jane: Okay, good. Because we’d love to continue this discussion and get your questions and comments. I have a good book, too; you might’ve already read it… of course, I don’t remember the name of that one, either!
At that, John closed the session with a prayer, asking God to reveal himself to us in a fresh way, wherever we are in “the journey,” that we would know God is real and that God wants a relationship with us. (Chalk that up on the long list of unanswered prayers.)
On my way home, I quickly recorded my impressions of the first meeting:
So that was my first Alpha Course. I was kind of quiet this time around; I didn’t really want to interrupt with too many challenges to people’s ideas, and I wanted to establish myself as someone who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the Christian faith and knowledge of the Bible.
When it came time that I was finally deciding to tell them that I was an atheist, it was very hard. Every time I wanted to start talking, my heart started beating really fast. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s just because I’m a person who doesn’t do public speaking. I’m sitting here in this situation with a bunch of people whose beliefs I know are hostile to my worldview, and I don’t believe what they’re saying – I don’t believe the things they believe. Maybe I was afraid of their reaction, but I know I don’t have to be. These are nice people. They’re honest in their faith. They’re not all on the same page, exactly, with what they believe, which I thought was interesting. But I think they’re willing to let me talk and let me tell my story in little bits and pieces, and to bring up things that might challenge what they believe.
I hope that somebody can answer the challenges. That would be great. Just give me something to convince me that I’m wrong. That would be amazing. If you can convince me that I’m wrong about God, then you’d probably have a huge evangelist on your hands. But I don’t think I’m wrong. I think that there isn’t a God, and I think that they’ll probably give me a lot of the same sort of arguments that I’m used to hearing – Pascal’s wager (“what if you’re wrong”), or “everybody has to have faith in something,” and so on.
People say things like I must’ve been angry at God, or hurt, and I heard that tonight already, too. And they’ll say, well, you’re just in a different point on your journey. Well, I don’t think my destination is where you think it is. I think the destination is wherever you end up. Even if I were to become a believer again, I couldn’t become a born-again Christian – simply because I know that the things the bible claims are not true.
Somebody already suggested that I might want to read The Case for Christ, and I just politely told her I’ve already read it. Lee Strobel… not a very good book. He comes along with arguments like, one of the reasons you know that Jesus was resurrected is because there’s an empty tomb. Okay, that’s not a very good argument.
I think these are probably people who mostly haven’t had their faith challenged by somebody who disagrees completely. It’s one thing to have believers of different stripes who disagree with each other about what they should believe, but when you have someone who just does not believe in God, that’s not something you often find in a church. So, we’ll see how this goes.
This is only the third week out of twelve; it’s going to be going on for a while still. Could be interesting. I don’t think that this level of argumentation will convince me of anything, because it’s not anything I haven’t heard before or tried to use on people back when I was a born-again, evangelical Christian. It’s not A-level stuff, in other words. But I’ll be nice; I’ll give it a chance. But I’m not going to let them try to paint me into a corner, either. So that’s Alpha Course #3. I missed the first two, but I’ll definitely be at the rest.
And I’ll definitely try to blog the whole wild ride for you to enjoy.