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Why I Have Difficulty Trusting Christians

April 2, 2011

I was raised with a pretty strong Christian ethic. It was a black and white world in which right and wrong were easy to identify. One thing that was definitely black was lying. I was pretty strict with myself when it came to lying. I just wouldn’t do it, even if it got me in trouble. Of course, I got pretty good at dissembling to avoid having to lie. But if you asked me a direct question, you would get a truthful answer. I was a little George Washington.

The corollary of holding myself to this ethic of honesty was that I assumed other Christians did the same. Non-believers could (and probably would) be expected to lie to me. But no mature Christian would think of being dishonest.

This expectation of honesty from fellow believers provided me with a very straightforward truth filter. When missionaries came through town regaling us with tales of the miraculous from the darkest corners of Papua New Guinea, I knew they were telling the truth. When a Christian with scientific credentials taught us that the earth was young and the fossil record could be explained by Noah’s flood, I knew it must be true. When I read Christian apologetics books by Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel explaining that the Bible was demonstrably accurate and reliable, I knew I could trust them.

They were in my camp. They were fellow Christians. And Christians, more than anyone, could be trusted to tell you the truth.

It wasn’t hard to come up with reasons to doubt those who challenged the “Christian” view of things. Secular scientists or scholars all had an agenda to disprove the truth of the Bible. Of course they would lie or twist the facts in order to persist in their stubborn disbelief. Thus, mainstream scholarly consensus could easily be discounted in favor of the handful of Christians in those fields of study who were unbiased enough to let us in on the real truth.

Then one day my truth filter broke. Irreparably.

It started with science. I read a piece by an old earth creationist who presented compelling evidence for a universe that was billions of years old. Because he was a Christian, my defences were down. I couldn’t deny the obvious implications of the science. Neither could I discount him as someone with an obvious agenda. After all, he was one of us.

I became hungry to know more. Why hadn’t I heard this before? How much of modern science had I unfairly rejected? I soon dove headlong into science, opening doors that had always remained closed to me for fear that I would get my head filled with faith-destroying disinformation from a scientific conspiracy. I read and read and read. I still figured that Christians were going to be the most trustworthy, so I started by reading material by Christians who accepted the consensus views of modern science. Then I read some atheists. Lo and behold, the evolution-affirming Christians and the atheists pretty much agreed on the proper interpretation of the scientific data – that the diversity of life was the product of a long evolutionary process and that all life was related through common descent.

But more importantly, I found that I no longer needed the assurance of the Christian scientists to tell me that evolution was true; it was self-evidently true. The evidence was overwhelming. Even if every single Christian on the planet denied evolution, I knew I could not.

No wonder every textbook and University taught evolution. They weren’t deluded by animosity toward God. They were simply following the evidence where it led. It was the creationists who were deluded. They had lied to me. Maybe they didn’t know they were lying, but they most definitely had sold me a false bill of goods. This was the beginning of my cognitive dissonance. My beliefs had become decoupled from my faith community. I no longer knew whom to trust.

I began to wonder whether this was the only area in which the evangelical community had shut its ears to reality. One spin-off of coming to accept evolution was that Genesis had to be approached differently. This started me on a path of serious biblical study. Once again, I read and read and read. I soon realized that there was a wide gulf between what biblical scholars knew and what the typical evangelical Christian was taught in the pew. The Bible was not a consistent monolithic work without error. At times, it bore uncomfortable resemblance to the texts and practices of other ancient near eastern religions. Its earliest history was at odds with archaeology. Its various authors sometimes disagreed with each other. It did not always present a consistent picture of God. Half of the books were not even written by the people I had been taught to believe were the authors.

If my truth filter was broken before, now it was demolished. I had read so much apologetic material and most of it had turned out to be rubbish. I could now see how the authors had cherry-picked data that appeared to support their positions and ignored relevant data that contradicted their positions. When I came across Lee Strobel’s The Case for Creation, I could see exactly what he was doing. He had carefully chosen his interviewees. They did not represent leading scientists in their field. Rather, he had interviewed scientists on the fringes of the academic world with opinions that were unsupportable in the real world of science (eg. Jonathan Wells). Even I could debunk them now. But Strobel passed them off as though they represented the consensus of modern science. He reassured his evangelical readers (knowing that his was probably the only science book most of them would read) that they could continue to ignore the folly of the evolutionists.

Years earlier I had read Strobel’s The Case for Christ. It had been tremendously effective in confirming what I believed about Christ and the resurrection. Now I began to wonder whether he had hoodwinked me in that book too. I’ll make a long story short and simply say that, knowing what I now know about the historical issues surrounding the New Testament, I am satisfied that The Case for Christ presents a distorted view of the scholarship in that field as well.

It’s been a few years since I began to see my truth filter for what it was. I’ve come out the other side like a Boy Scout after a geomagnetic reversal – my compass now points the opposite direction. In the same way that I once distrusted non-Christians, I now distrust Christians. That’s not to say that I think the average Christian is likely to lie to me. On the contrary, I find that most Christians do prize honesty and usually try to be truthful, at least on a personal level.

The problem is our willingness to lie to ourselves.

It isn’t the secular world that force-fits everything into its anti-God worldview. It’s evangelicals who have taken fields of study, such as biology, archaeology, and biblical studies, and mutilated the square pegs to make them fit into their round holes. They rigidly adhere to a belief structure (typically stemming from a prior commitment to biblical literalism and innerancy) that can countenance no doubt or uncertainty. Thus, when evidence comes along that calls their paradigm into question, they have no choice but to deny, ignore or distort the data to make it fit. Those who are the best at denying, ignoring and distorting the evidence are heralded as apologists for the faith. And evangelicals love apologists because they do all the hard thinking for them, while invariably arriving at faith-affirming conclusions. Their books fly off the Christian bookstore shelves dispensing whatever ad hoc explanation or special pleading might be required to salvage the evangelical belief system from the perils of uncomfortable fact.

In assessing trustworthiness, my first question used to be, “Is this person a Christian?” Now I ask, “Is this person trying to defend a belief system to which he has an inflexible commitment?” If the answer is yes, I realize that I need to be cautious. Christians aren’t the only ones who do this. Atheists are more than capable of deluding themselves in the interests of rejecting theism or Christianity (as attested by the prevalence of Jesus mythicism). But no longer does the Christian ethic of honesty provide me with assurance that a Christian source will be credible. While it might dissuade them from knowingly lying to me, their prior theological commitments can easily lead them to delude themselves (and me in the process).

I’m incredibly thankful for those Christian writers, scholars and bloggers who are willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. When I see that someone has the intellectual honesty to acknowledge even those truths that unsettle his or her faith, that’s when I begin to trust again.

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31 comments

  1. Great thoughts. I slowly accepted evolution through my education, but I struggled with using the Bible as a moral guide when it comes to parenting and spanking (I know, relatively benign issues compared to things like gay marriage and abortion!). After learning about the ANE stories and the inconsistencies of the Gospels, i.e. realizing that Biblical scholars disagree and often disbelieve in a literal resurrection, my trust was shattered. I know a little about the politics in academia, so it isn’t like I blindly trust the scholars in science and religion either.
    Realisticly though, I can’t blame the majority of evangelicals for the obscurity of truth…it comes from the pastors and leaders, as well as generations of brainwashing to label everything that contradicts the status quo of theology as from the devil. We are all scared to dig to deep.


    • Thanks LAC. I certainly wouldn’t want to be understood as blaming the average evangelical. Most are genuinely good people who value truth. But being “scared to dig too deep” is what prevents them from finding truth. One of the problems with Christian apologetics is that it can give a person the illusion that they have dug deep. But in reality, they’re usually getting a one-sided presentation that dodges the real issue or ignores the contrary evidence. Thanks for your feedback!


      • I don’t think your post came across as blaming the “lay” Christian…I was just going on a rambling tangent;) I think you presented a fair assessment…it’s not often that I read something level-headed and I appreciate your tact. Thanks again:)


  2. I know exactly what you mean. I have a similar story (I wrote about it recently at http://www.christianheretic.com/2011/03/what-else-did-they-lie-about.html if you accept links). The funny thing is, I still have trouble with evolution, but I think that’s because I haven’t studied it enough yet.


    • Drew, it does sound as though you went through something similar, although the issues on which your trust was shaken were different than mine. I particularly resonated with your statement that you “trusted that the assembly’s leaders had enough integrity to not only tell the truth, but to continue digging to make sure that their theology was in line with reality.” Bingo. I remember believing that the apologists wouldn’t make these confident claims if they hadn’t done their homework to be absolutely sure they were correct. Sadly, it’s not so.


  3. Christians seem to be the most likely to want to defend their paradigm no matter what is presented as so much is at stake – especially in the culture war they’ve picked. This post described the faith of my childhood. Ultimately it’s very hard to leave our bias behind and we are all operating off of some sort of paradigm and we are skeptical of challenges – not until the challenge has avalanched enough are we willing to consider alternatives. Nonetheles I do like to think I try to keep an open mind and not clutch my ideas too tightly – I’ve reformulated enough beliefs that I think I’m open. It took a while to get to that point though, and I have grace for the tight-fisted…


    • Changing one’s mind is just plain hard and humbling. But I agree, once you’ve done it a few times, it gets easier. You start to loosen your grip. And you start to recognize your own fallibility.


  4. It is a common refrain among evangelicals and apologists that we can’t trust ourselves, that the heart is deceitful above all else. It would do us all well to remember that that is true of Christian apologists as well. I’m not sure, like you, that they intentionally lie to us. They are so convinced of their presuppositions that they likely believe every word of what they say. So, like Charlie, I have grace for the tight-fisted. I just don’t necessarily swallow what they say with a spoon full of sugar anymore. I take it with more of a grain of salt.


  5. [...] at Cognitive Discopants (I love that name!), wrote a revealing post on his blog yesterday about why he has difficulty [...]


  6. Chris, this post struck my experience on so many levels. I find that it’s not only the bible I have gone to demanding answers that fit my cultural norm. I want the comfort of feeling alright, or feeling that things will have a happy ending, and, like most humans, invest in securing that. My output is skewed in favor of my needs or presuppositions. I don’t know that I’ll ever fully escape it, but recognizing the limitations is a good start. The guy at dodifferent.org.uk writes about this in several posts, particularly in reference to eschatology. I point people to you in my last blog post, discussing how expectations impact the way we gather information in a crisis.

    cheshainmotion.blogspot.com


    • Chesha, thanks for the links and the encouragement. A couple months ago I posted something on that very issue of re-examining our presuppositions @ Recalibrating our filters. It sounds like you know the feeling.


  7. Thanks for writing that Chris. It makes for very familiar reading.


  8. Wow, what a great and comprehensive explanation of shifting beliefs. What you say about losing trust in Christians really hits home. Once that was gone for me, pretty much everything else Christian came crashing down.

    Then one day my truth filter broke. Irreparably.

    My truth filter broke, I think, when my wife was going through a dark and difficult experience with depression. There were many around us who insisted on essentially praying it away, and this expectation was placed on me too, whether I really believed it or not. The depression did go away eventually, but not through sudden and supernatural intervention, but through time, and lots and lots and lots of talking. Even that didn’t seem to shift things dramatically, until she became pregnant. At that time, all of a sudden, things got better.

    Not to say God couldn’t have been behind the less dramatic, and more human interventions. But having naturalistic explainations, that could involve, but did not seem to require, God’s intervention, helped my beliefs to shift dramatically.

    I started reading apologetics at that point, which was really dumb, because I never really bought into them even as a strong Christian. So that just made me more convinced in my belief in there being naturalistic explainations for all I had previously attributed to God. In other words, my old faith was gone, to be replaced by, I still don’t know a five years later.

    I’m incredibly thankful for those Christian writers, scholars and bloggers who are willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. When I see that someone has the intellectual honesty to acknowledge even those truths that unsettle his or her faith, that’s when I begin to trust again.

    Followed the link through to here from Rachel Held Evans blog. Have really appreciated her writing, for just that reason. Thom Stark more than anyone has embodied that honesty in Christian thinking.


    • atimetorend, although my post focused on the intellectual side of things, I have gone through a process similar to yours on the experiential end as well. My church culture attributed pretty much everything good (from parking spots to recovery from illness) to God. I began to start to wonder if natural explanations might account for much of this, especially when I saw God apparently not intervening in so many situations that seemed far more significant. It’s an unsettled area for me. I don’t want to rule God out, but neither do I want to imagine his hand behind every fortuitous event.


    • rend,
      if your wife should ever want to talk, feel free to have her email me. i have not answers or solutions, but can empathize with the emotional despair. hindsight has been illuminating for me, and while my doubts came first, the lack of people to relate to in person definitely pushed me towards what i would characterize more as ptsd than depression, but it is something you almost have to experience yourself before truly being able to relate to others.


      • Thanks LAC, I will mention that to her. The depression was actually before the faith issues in our family, and thankfully we are past most of those issues now, a few years later.


  9. [...] weekend, Chris Massey blogged about his difficulty trusting Christians. This week he shares helpful tips on how not to get duped [...]


  10. Congratulations on discovering that people lie. Next module: general human fallibility.

    Try not to throw out the baby with the bathwater however.


  11. [...] read three posts on the blog Cognitive Discopants worth some serious discussion. The first,  Why I Have Difficulty Trusting Christians, leads to the title of my post today. This post outlines a journey from acceptance to distrust of [...]


  12. So IOW – the black/white distinction is still problematic for you.


  13. [...] the article, from the perspective of someone with a different journey: Why I Have Difficulty Trusting [...]


  14. So.., I’m confused? Does one who is going through these things still call themselves “christian” or believers in The Christ? Do all ancient creeds, texts, etc…, become something not to believe? This leads me to believe that folks traveling down this path are agnostic and not a follower of The Christ?


    • Richie,
      I don’t think it needs to be so black & white as that. One can follow Christ and call oneself a Christian while still recognizing that many of the dogmatic teachings in evangelicalism are not correct. One doesn’t have to believe that the Bible is inerrant in order to believe that it is an invaluable resource for discovering God, as revealed through Christ.


  15. You said “The Bible was not a consistent monolithic work without error.”

    Do you have any examples? What’s your best one? Maybe you’ve already written a blog on this?


    • Eric, there are a number of topics on which different biblical authors have different views. Much of the Old Testament demonstrates an absence of any belief in an afterlife (e.g. Ecclesiastes). The christologies of Mark vs. John would be another example. What should the Christian’s attitude be towards the Roman authorities? You’d get a different answer from the author of Revelation than from the author of the Pastoral epistles. The gospels disagree on which day Jesus was crucified. Did Judas throw the money at the feet of the priests or buy a field with it? Depends on whether you’re reading Matthew or Acts. Different authors say different things.

      On the issue of error, as just an example, I’d recommend taking a look at pages 202 to 207 of Thom Stark’s review of Paul Copan’s book. It gives a brief survey of the many problems that archaeology poses for factual innerancy.

      The fact that the Bible isn’t a “monolithic work without error” doesn’t mean it’s of no value. Quite the opposite. But I believe we do need to be honest with ourselves and not pretend that it’s inerrant in all respects.


  16. [...] read three posts on the blog Cognitive Discopants worth some serious discussion. The first,  Why I Have Difficulty Trusting Christians, leads to the title of my post today. This post outlines a journey from acceptance to distrust of [...]


  17. I heartily concur.

    It is amazing, after you have allowed yourself to learn and research outside the box, to go back and see the narrow-minded, stupid arguments you used to swallow wholesale. (I mean me, of couse, not you! lol)

    Loved this sentence… “Those who are the best at denying, ignoring and distorting the evidence are heralded as apologists for the faith.”


  18. Hi, Chris. I first met you on the Pangea blogsite, where we commented back and forth until you invited me to join you on your own site. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2012/01/12/preaching-against-evolution-in-evangelical-churches-creates-atheists/

    I had suggested that you appeared to be dishonouring God’s Word with your comments here on your site. You invited me to interact with you here and show you where I think you have gone wrong.

    I am a science graduate myself (biology, chemistry) and have experienced some of the doubt and uncertainty you talk about. The Bible allows for that, as several of the psalms evidence. But ultimately we need to decide: Shall we come down on the side of God, or men?

    You rightly say, in your single-sentence paragraph (fourth one from the end), “The problem is our willingness to lie to ourselves.” According to Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

    As you likely know, the Hebrew term “heart” represented the inner person as a whole, the centre of our being (it wasn’t just the physical pump). So you’re correct that we’re often self-deceived.

    The solution is (as indicated earlier in that chapter) to trust the Lord (verse 7) and not man (verse 5). Let God be true even though all people, including me and you, tend to be liars (Romans 3:4). “Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save” (Psalm 146:3).

    Do not trust old-earth creationists, nor young-earth ones either. Do not trust negative Bible scholars, nor positive ones either. Take everything with a grain (or a bag!) of salt. I’m glad to see you talk about doubting atheists as well as Christians.

    But, Chris, be careful of your own motivations in doubting God’s Word. Overcome your doubt through earnest prayer and study.

    But if you are not willing to do this, then at least stop telling people you “have not left Christianity,” which is what you stated on the other blog.

    Regarding my suggestion that you appear to be dishonouring God’s Word, I’m getting that sense from your May 5, 2011 reply to Eric. You talk about “different authors [having] different views” as if this indicated genuine discrepancies nullifying the truth (= inerrancy) of the Bible. Have you carefully researched any of those proposed “differences”? Are you sure there are no reasonable ways to reconcile those “discrepancies”? I would offer to help you by digging up some ideas, but I know you wouldn’t want anyone else to “do all the hard thinking” for you. :)


    • Richard, thanks for taking me up on the offer. I think the nub of our disagreement is that you equate the “truth of the Bible” with inerrancy. For my part, I don’t require the Bible to be inerrant in order for it to contain important truth. I don’t require its various authors to all have the same opinions about every issue in order for the Bible as a whole to speak truth.

      That the Bible contains historical and scientific errors, internal contradictions, and differing theological views seems to me self-evident. I am not going to be able to pray my way through the fact that gospel authors disagree on which day Jesus was crucified. I am not going to be able to pray my way through the fact that the Bible describes a solid firmament holding up the waters above. These are facts that I must deal with. And I honor the Bible, not by pretending those issues don’t exist or coming up with ad hoc apologetic moves to get around them, but by recognizing and appreciating the Bible for the sort of book it actually is.


  19. Please allow me to change the tone of my comment. Delete it if you will, I don’t think I can delete it. I regret for it’s rudeness. Following is what I wish to say.

    I am learning that there is a very strong pressure pushing my beliefs to alignment with my behavior and lifestyle rather than the opposite direction. In your journey of being open to the truth I hope you keep aware that you also may have this tendency.



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