(Picture from The Daily Bible Plan.)
The follow blog post is an excerpt from my upcoming eBook In Praise of the Doubting Thomas: How to Doubt Without Losing Your Faith. It should be out within the next couple of weeks.
Coming of age in the evangelical church, I was taught that the history of Christianity goes something like this: God wrote the Bible, the Catholics came along and ruined things, Luther and Calvin saved the day, the end. The truth is actually a lot more complicated than that. There’s a whole two thousand year history that’s full of different doctrines, ideas, theologies, and schisms that have shaped the religion throughout the years.
Let’s take, for example, the virgin conception. Only two of the gospels mention anything about Jesus’ birth–Matthew and Luke–and none of the New Testament books written prior to Matthew and Luke say anything about Jesus’ birth. Also, both Matthew and Luke have different details about what exactly happened on that first Christmas morning. And then of course, there’s the fact that in the original Hebrew, Isaiah 7:14 could mean either “virgin” or “young girl.” Of course, there is no way to look up Mary’s medical records, so I don’t we can ever know for sure. But the possibility is there.
Then there’s the controversy surrounding Hell. Before Rob Bell unleashed a media shit storm with his book Love Wins, I was already having doubts about Hell and Satan. As my friend Crystal Lewis explains:
A devil-like character had a pretty good run in Greek mythology as Hades/Tartarus, and in the Zoroastrian religion as Angra Mainyu. In early Israel, this character was simple an “it,” known as “the satan” or “the accuser.” The Jewish people believed that both good and evil came from God. (Please see Isaiah 45:7; for the record, many Jewish people still believe this.) In their eyes, God was all-powerful and could not be out-maneuvered by a mere “accuser.” It wasn’t until centuries after the institution of Judaism that Christians embraced and popularized the concept of Satan as the evil “god of the underworld.”
Okay, fine, there might not be a red guy with horns after all. But there has to be a Hell, right? Well, for starters, when Jesus talks about Hell in the Gospels, the original Greek text says “Gehanna,” which was a real place where people sacrificed children to idols. According to Lewis:
Gehenna became a trash heap on which the Jews would throw old refuse, human waste, dead animals, and criminals unworthy of burial. The stench and history of this place was profound in the first century that people had to kindle an “eternal” or “everlasting” fire there to control the sickening odor. It was a place where worms (or maggots), bugs, and disease were always everywhere, thus making it the place where the “worm didn’t die.” The word “Gehenna” became synonymous with defilement. 
Okay, so Hell’s questionable. That’s cool. I never liked the whole “eternal conscious torment” thing anyway. But all the stuff about Jesus is historically accurate, right?
Well, not exactly, according to biblical historian Marcus Borg:
Written in the last third of the first century, [the gospels] contain the accumulated traditions of early Christian communities and were put into their present forms by second- (or even third-) generation authors. Through careful comparative study of the gospels, one can see the authors at work, modifying and adding to the traditions they received. They were continuing a process that had been going on throughout the forty to seventy years when the gospel material circulated in oral form. Much happened in those decades to change the traditions about Jesus. 
The more I study the history behind the Christian religion, the more doubts I have about my faith. What if I’ve built my entire identity around a lie? What if “faith” is just another word for “denying reality?”
That’s not the case, according to biblical historian (and fellow Doctor Who fanatic) James McGrath. In his book The Burial of Jesus, McGrath explains that the biblical definition of faith is “first and foremost trust or confidence in God, and secondly faithfulness to God. Only rarely is the focus on believing the truthfulness of certain propositions.” So when the author of Hebrews says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see” (11:1), it does not mean that we can disregard historical and scientific fact simply because it doesn’t fit into our worldview. We need scientific and historical facts in order to distinguish between myths from reality.
Of course all facts need interpretation, and this where faith comes in. When there are gaps in the facts, or the facts leave gaps in our previously held theology, faith fills in those gaps. It does not ignore the facts; it merely says that God is much bigger than all of our questions, all of our doubts, and all of our tiny little theological boxes.
And thank God for that!
1. Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith (New York: Harper One, 1994), 23
2. Crystal St. Marie Lewis, QUENCHED: What Everyone (Especially Christians) Should Know About Hell (Self-published, 2012), Loc. 562-568
3. Ibid, Loc. 454-458.
4. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 9.
5. James F. McGrath, The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith? (Englewood: Patheos Press, 2012), Loc. 156-158.