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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Some Evangelicals See the Problems Associated with the "Evidence" for the Resurrection

Many Christian apologists, such as William Craig, Gary Habermas, and Mike Licona, argue that the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is so strong that anyone who studies the evidence with an open mind will come to the conclusion that Jesus really did rise from the grave. Not all evangelicals agree with this assessment, however. One school in particular, the presuppositionalists, maintain that it is foolhardy for a believer to argue for the resurrection of Jesus based on the historical evidence. They maintain that the evidence, while good, will never convince an unbeliever because they will always interpret the evidence within a naturalistic worldview. What needs to happen, according to these Calvinistic apologists, is for the Holy Spirit to regenerate the heart of the unbeliever and thereby change his worldview. Thus, they believe that it is futile to use rational or historical arguments for the resurrection, rather, one needs to proclaim the fact of the resurrection using the Word of God as his authority.

One of the leading presuppositionalists was Greg Bahnsen (1948-1995). He wrote a paper in 1972 entitled, "The Impropriety of Evidentially Arguing for the Resurrection," (Synapse II [Westminster Seminary]).

Bahnsen states:
Evangelicals are often prone to generate inductive arguments for the veracity of Christianity based on the historical resurrection of Christ, and such arguments occupy central importance in this apologetic. It is felt that if a man would simply consider the "facts" presented and use his common reasoning sense he would be rationally compelled to believe the truth of scripture. In such a case the evidences for Christ's resurrection are foundational to apologetical witnessing, whereas their only proper place is confirmatory of the believer's presupposed faith. There is a certain impropriety about attempting to move an opponent from his own circle into the circle of Christian belief by appealing to evidence for the resurrection, and there are many reasons why the evidentialist's building a case for Christianity upon neutral ground with the unbeliever ought to be avoided.
The first reason why appeal to evidences is wrong, according to Bahnsen, is that it sets the mind of man above the Word of God in terms of what is the ultimate authority. He explains:
The Christian does not look at the evidence impartially, standing on neutral ground with the unbeliever, waiting to see if the evidence warrants trust in God's truthfulness or not. Rather, he begins by submitting to the truth of God, preferring to view every man as a liar if he contradicts God's word (cf. Rom. 3:4). No one can demand proof from God, and the servant of the Lord should never give in to any such demand (and obviously, neither should he suggest that such a demand be made by the unbeliever). The apostles were certainly not afraid of evidence; yet we notice that they never argued on the basis of it. They preached the resurrection without feeling any need to prove it to the skeptics; they unashamedly appealed to it as fact. They explained the meaning of the resurrection, its significance, its fulfillment of prophecy, its centrality in theology, its redemptive power, its promise and assuring function - but they did not attempt to prove it by appealing to the "facts" which any "rational man" could use as satisfying scholarly requirements of credibility. By trying to build up a proof of the resurrection from unbiased grounds the Christian allows his witness to be absorbed into a pagan framework and reduces the antithesis between himself and the skeptic to a matter of a few particulars.
Secondly, Bahnsen points out that the study of history is based on uniformity. In other words, the historian assumes that the past was like the present. The same laws of cause and effect were in place then as they are now. He writes:
We note immediately that an inductive (historical) argument rests for its validity on the premise of uniformity (past and present) in nature; this makes possible a consideration of an analogy of circumstance. Yet the very point which the evidentialist is trying to prove is that of miracle, i.e. discontinuity. So he is enmeshed in using a principle of continuity to establish the truth of discontinuity! When the evidentialist seeks to exhibit that the resurrection very probably occurred as a unique truth-attesting sign he is divided against himself .
What Bahnsen is saying is that when a historian looks at history, he is looking to discover what "most likely" or "most probably" happened. The fact that a miracle is, by its very definition, an improbable event makes it contradictory for a historian to argue that a miracle probably happened(Bart Ehrman does a good job of making this point in his debate with Mike Licona: Can Historians Prove Jesus Rose From The Dead?).

Bahnsen continues:
Next, we observe that probability is statistically predicated of a series in which an event reoccurs on a regular basis; that is, general probability might be proven for a reoccurring event, but the resurrection of Christ is a one-time event. Can probability be predicated of a particular occurrence? Not normally.

The third point that Bahnsen makes against the use of evidence in apologetics is that, at best, all evidentialism can do is establish that the resurrection is a plausible theory not a definite reality. This point, according to Bahnsen undermines the certainty of the resurrection which one can have by presupposing the truth of the Scripture. He explains:
Finally, once the evidentialist has failed to maintain that Christianity is the only adequate basis for a meaningful interpretation of historical facts and not simply a working hypothesis which is "as plausible" as the next with respect to isolated facts, and once he has lowered his sights by appealing to the probability of scripture's truth, then he has left the door open for the skeptic's escape to considerations of possibility. If Christ only probably arose, then it is possible that the evidence adduced has a completely different interpretation; even if certain facts seem to point to the probable resurrection of Jesus, it is admitted that other evidence points to the disconfirmation of the gospel records! But this is not the Christian position, for according to it there is no possibility that Christ did not arise; this is a foundational, incorrigible fact as revealed in God's authoritative word .
Fourth, Bahnsen maintains that the historical evidence for the resurrection is dependent upon human testimony which everyone agrees is fallible. If human testimony can be wrong, then the testimony about the resurrection of Jesus could be wrong. He states:
Under cross-examination most of the considerations brought forth by evidentialists can be dismissed as overstated, gratuitous, or inconclusive. There is little if any basis for holding to a resurrection as probably taking place in the past and arguing that the witnesses are probably reliable is a completely different matter. It is also unsuitable for the intended aim of the argument, for the very place that the witnesses could be mistaken, deceptive, or distorted might be the very event under question!
Bahnsen's final point is that even the evidentialist succeeded in proving that the resurrection happened, it would not prove the early Christian's interpretation of the event was accurate. Just as with the death of Jesus, unless a divine revelation is given explaining its meaning, the event has no theological significance. One could have witnessed the death of Jesus and his resurrection but without a word from God telling him what all of this means, the witness is no better off. He may put a completely erroneous meaning to the events. Again Bahnsen elaborates:
the evidentialist may prove the historical resurrection of Christ, but he proves that it is simply an isolated and uninterpreted "freak" event in a contingent universe. He is still stranded on the far side of Lessing's ditch (i.e. the skeptic can grant that Christ arose and then simply ask what that odd, ancient fact has to do with his own present life and experience). The fact that Christ rose from the dead does not prove anything within the neutral framework of an evidentialist's argument. Christ's resurrection does not entail his deity, just as our future resurrection does not entail our divinity! . . . The evidentialist may prove the resurrection of Jesus, but until he proves every other point of Christianity, then resurrection is an isolated, irrelevant, "brute" fact which is no aid to our apologetical efforts. Only within the system of Christian logic does the resurrection of Christ have meaning and implication; and that system of logical entailment and premises can only be used on a presuppositional basis - you do not argue into it. In terms of the evidentialist's approach to the unbeliever, that skeptic can accept the resurrection without flinching, for the resurrection is simply a random fact until a Christian foundation has been placed under it.
I agree with most of Bahnsen's criticisms of attempting to prove the resurrection from historical evidence. He is to be commended for recognizing that ultimately a belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes down to faith. Faith that the Bible is a divine revelation and faith that Jesus is living.

32 comments:

  1. The evidence leads to reasonable faith. Faith will always be necessary but we can at least know that we have a reasonable faith.

    In the same light, the evidence also serves to weaken the alternative argument of not believing.

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  2. Now what would make this post virtually perfect would be to have William Lane Craig's dismissal of presuppostional apologetics. It goes something like, "Who's going to believe you if you are just asserting your conclusion?"

    Ben

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  3. So his idea of converting someone is to have them abandon their critical thinking brain, which according to him God gave them in the first place, and just trust by faith. The parable of talents comes to mind.

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  4. John Sfifer, you want to show that evidence or just assert it?

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  5. John Sfifer: In the same light, the evidence also serves to weaken the alternative argument of not believing.

    Please explain how that could possibly work. In my experience, the evidence actually serves to weaken the possibility of belief. And lest you think I'm just saying that as confirmation bias, well...

    I grew up in an Evangelical Bible Church. I had every intention of going to Seminary and becoming a pastor (I was actually accepted at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with scholarship offers). But I am also a historian by training (Phi Alpha Theta National History Honors Society, 3.66 GPA from Western Illinois University, the indication being that I'm pretty good at it and I was not taking Biblical history)). My minor was in religious studies, by the by.

    Either way, I suppose you could say I was something of a presuppositionalist, as I believed that the Bible was an accurate accounting of god's revelation and I believed that it provided self-evidently accurate evidence of Jesus's resurrection. But the evidence provided by comparison of religious tradition told me that Christianity grew the same way every other religion grows. There are myths and legends built up from borrowed and created traditions over a framework of stories that may or may not contain a grain of truth.

    But it was history that was the big Bible-ruiner for me. The Jewish Bible is wildly historically inaccurate (there's zero evidence for the captivity in Egypt thing, Daniel gets the Persian succession wrong, three different Persian kings ended the Babylonian Captivity at times a century apart, and one Persian king is invented whole cloth. Yes, I'm big on Persian history). The Jesus story doesn't work, either. No contemporary historian mentioned Herod's slaughter of the innocents. The census called by Caesar that required Joseph and Mary to return to Bethlehem didn't happen (and was stupid. You don't count people in their hometowns, you count them where they are. The Roman world would have gone through extreme upheaval if the Gospel account was accurate). The only external mention of Jesus as Messiah comes from a passage that was inserted in to Josephus by a later author (probably Eusebius).

    Either way, my point is that I had faith. Then I actually looked at the evidence. Upon doing so I discarded my faith. Ergo, evidence does not weaken non-belief. If honestly approached it strengthens non-belief.

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  6. War on Error,

    You are right. Some of the most vocal critics of presuppositionalism are other Christian apologists. For example, Kelly Clark in the 5 Views on Apologetics says: Whenever I read presuppositionalists I almost always think, "Saying it's so doesn't make it so." Saying that Christianity is the criterion of truth (whatever that could mean), that Christian belief is the most certain thing we know, that Christian faith is not defeasible, and that Scripture supports these views, does not make it so. There are few apologetic approaches that are so long on assured proclamation and so short on argument (pp. 370-371).

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  7. A significant influence in my deconversion was the realization that the evidential apologists were right in their criticisms of presuppositionalism and that the presupp's were right in their criticisms of the evidentialists. I came to this conclusion while teaching a class in apologetics. It was very unsettling.

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  8. Note to self. Don't teach presuppositional and evidential apologetics beside each other in the same theological college setting. hehe

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    Replies
    1. I thought you might be interested in this, you're of course free to delete it or ignore it as you see fit:
      Physical evidence of the Resurrection
      www.itbn.org/index/detail/lib/Networks/sublib/TBN/ec/VqcXByMzombYzTjXF9ZBeNMYfVAIJXEd
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWyiZtagxX8
      Yeshua ha Mashiach, died on the cross for your sins as according to the Scriptures, on the 3rd day He raised again And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom are fallen asleep.After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of Paul also, as of one born out of due time. (Like when I saw Him) If you repent and trust him, you will have eternal life and reign w Him in His Kingdom.

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  9. What difference does it make what these school of apologetics thought think?

    You can use some common sense. There is the evidence, evaluate it and make up your mind.

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  10. War,

    Or just have your mind made up in advance on which position you favor and don't let the facts bother you. That is essentially what presupp. is anyway.

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  11. John Sfifer, you have again made an assertion of evidence but not provided any, please provide this evidence you claim exists.

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  12. John,

    You say:You can use some common sense. There is the evidence, evaluate it and make up your mind.

    That is exactly what I did

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  13. BeamStalk: John Sfifer, you have again made an assertion of evidence but not provided any, please provide this evidence you claim exists.

    Technically speaking, if you take John's last comment about evaluating the evidence on its own, it's absolutely correct. I can look at the evidence and make up my own mind. You don't need a school of apologetics to convince anyone that the Union won the Civil War or the White Sox won the Series in 2005.

    In fact, that's one of the biggest problems. If there are apologetics built around proving something, that should be the first sign that skepticism is needed.

    Of course we have to take that comment in light of the fact that his first comment was to say that evidence elevates faith. In that, well, we're talking about an argument by assertion and we can assume that his stance is that, "Ignore apologetics, look at evidence," naturally leads to, "Believe in Jesus."

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  14. Technically speaking, if you take John's last comment about evaluating the evidence on its own, it's absolutely correct. I can look at the evidence and make up my own mind. You don't need a school of apologetics to convince anyone that the Union won the Civil War or the White Sox won the Series in 2005.

    Agreed, but he is claiming that there is positive evidence for God. Common sense is not evidence, it is more of an argument from ignorance or personal incredulity. I am just asking for one piece of evidence that backs up his claim of a god which he has asserted exists.

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  15. Sorry exists is too strong. John said reasonable faith. I would assume that he means logical or rational, that being the definition of reasonable. It is like in America we can only convict a criminal when there is no reasonable doubt. I would expect just as strong evidence for faith as I would for the conviction of any person in the American legal system.

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  16. Beam,

    Just what 1 piece of evidence would satisfy you?

    Scott

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  17. Beam,

    No one will ever convince you. You have to look at the evidence humbly. But if you do, then you will find that christianity is the most compelling religion. You can compare it to islam, hindu, taosim, atheism, and mormonism and in the end, it is the most compelling. The specific evidences are in the literature.

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  18. The debate between E's and P's is at the most basic level moot. It is not an either/or proposition. The bible clearly uses both:

    Presupp: "In the beginning God..." (Gen. 1:1)

    Evident: "Jesus answered them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.'" (Jo. 6:29)

    Evidentiary support of Presupp: "By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." (Heb. 11:3)

    Presupp & Evident: "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

    'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.'

    Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Cor. 1:18-24)

    Mere mental ascent to a set of facts is not the same as saving faith; but at the same time saving faith is faith in a factual Man who said and did factual things. Hence Gospel evangelism calls men to believe (have faith) in the facts of Jesus' death, burial & resurrection as an atonement for sin in order to guarantee forgiveness & reconciliation to God for anyone who will believe (John 3:16).

    Scott

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  19. John: No one will ever convince you. You have to look at the evidence humbly. But if you do, then you will find that christianity is the most compelling religion. You can compare it to islam, hindu, taosim, atheism, and mormonism and in the end, it is the most compelling. The specific evidences are in the literature.

    So then what do you say to Ken? What do you say to me? I notice that you haven't responded to my initial comment in this thread...

    Scott: Evidentiary support of Presupp: "By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." (Heb. 11:3)

    You might want to look up the word "evidence" before you keep using it. You might also want to look up the words "circular reasoning."

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  20. Ged,

    The Bible has been tested historically and archeologically thru the ages. It has always come out unscathed. There are stories from 18th cent that only now are proved, in 1990 Caiphus discovered....

    I would say to you that altho you doubted, you should not stop looking. Although you are smart in history, there are some who are more knowledgeable who have come to a different conclusion. They too would've observed the errors you mention and would have 'disproved' the Bible.

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  21. John: The Bible has been tested historically and archeologically thru the ages. It has always come out unscathed. There are stories from 18th cent that only now are proved, in 1990 Caiphus discovered....

    No no no no no no no no no. Also, no.

    The Book of Daniel tells us that King Darius of the Persians conquered Babylon and was later replaced by King Cyrus. In reality, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 587 BCE. Cyrus was followed by Cambyses II, who was followed by another due who Darius I claimed was a pretender and killed, taking control of the throne. Daniel is, therefore, wrong. Full stop.

    Meanwhile, the Bible is historically self-contradictory on the subject. In Ezra, Cyrus declares religious amnesty and gives the Jews money to re-build their Temple. The efforts are stymied during the rest of Cyrus's reign, through the reign of Artaxerxes and Ahaseurus until, finally, in Darius's reign the Temple's completed. Except Artaxerxes I was the son of Xerxes I, who was the son of Darius I.

    In Nehemiah, meanwhile, it's Artaxerxes who puts the wheels in motion to get the Temple rebuilt.

    The Persian king in the book of Esther is Ahaseurus, making it the second time he's showed up. This is remarkable, considering that there was never, ever a king named Ahaseurus.

    Ergo, history does not support the Bible in this case. Your assertion that "it has always come out unscathed" is, well, wrong.

    Archaeologically, meanwhile, there is zero proof that the Hebrews were ever in Egypt in large numbers. Moreover, the book of Numbers starts with a survey that totals up just over 600,000 men in the Exodus. Add in women and children and we're looking at a couple million people. There were only 3-5 million people living in the entirety of Egypt, total, at the time. Yet we see zero evidence of massive and sudden depopulation.

    Also, there is zero evidence that the Pharaohs ever used mass slave labor. Participation in public building works was a compulsory duty for the actual Egyptian people.

    Although you are smart in history, there are some who are more knowledgeable who have come to a different conclusion. They too would've observed the errors you mention and would have 'disproved' the Bible.

    I know of plenty of historians who would agree with me completely. I'd be willing to bet that their books rarely get stocked in church libraries.

    Also, thanks for the condescension. I really appreciate it.

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  22. Ged,

    not a condescension in no way. We have have people who are more knowledgeable than us in our respective fields. I am sure you are quite capable.

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  23. John: We have have people who are more knowledgeable than us in our respective fields.

    Yeah. I'll be the first to admit that there are plenty who are smarter and more knowledgeable in the field of history. However, the not-so-subtext of your statement is that I'm not smart because I see historical inconsistencies in the Bible while I should really know that there aren't errors and history and archaeology have never once proven the Bible wrong.

    Of course your proof of this is, "There are stories from 18th cent that only now are proved, in 1990 Caiphus discovered." I don't even know what that's supposed to mean. For one thing, which 18th Century (BCE or CE)? For another, how was Caiphus "discovered" and what's the significance?

    Also, can I assume you believe that the story of Noah's Flood is historically accurate?

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  24. J.S., why are we always told to look at the evidence humbly? If it's all manifestly true, why is a particular frame of mind necessary for a successful investigation of the facts?

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  25. J.S., why are we always told to look at the evidence humbly?

    Because "humbly" is code-speak for, "With the right mindset and without your uppity questions."

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  26. Hi Steve,

    That's a great question.

    My best answer is that God's ways are not the world's ways. We can look at the facts but at some point we have to realize that this is the Divine we are dealing with (you sense it at some point). Then you have to surrender to Him and say please show Yourself to me God. God hates a proud heart, and He hears a humble cry.

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  27. “A significant influence in my deconversion was the realization that the evidential apologists were right in their criticisms of presuppositionalism and that the presupp's were right in their criticisms of the evidentialists. I came to this conclusion while teaching a class in apologetics. It was very unsettling.”

    In Atheism in France, Alan Kors describes the origins of modern atheism. What he find is that the every French intellectual or theologian of the time (1650-1729) was either an Aristotelian or a Cartesian, and that the atheists were those who accepted both the Cartesian critique of the Aristotelians, and the Aristotelian critique of the Cartesians.

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  28. But J.S., what you're saying is that a person should believe up front -- at least on some level -- before beginning an investigation into Christianity's believability. That doesn't make any sense at all. It's a case of horse/cart.

    And just what is this "proud heart" that God so disdains? Simply questioning whether evidence supports the validity of a given belief? Is that a sinful starting point, in your opinion?

    Let me also ask this: If a Muslim recommended his faith and asked you to honestly investigate it, would you begin by first asking Allah to show you if it's true?

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  29. John Sfifer said, "We can look at the facts but at some point we have to realize that this is the Divine we are dealing with (you sense it at some point). Then you have to surrender to Him and say please show Yourself to me God."

    Um... you do realize that you just told us that (contrary to your first post), the evidence does not lead to a reasonable faith? That what you have to do, instead, is stop looking at the evidence and surrender yourself to God?

    This sets up a situation where you basically have to believe in order to believe. Since I don't believe, that does me no good at all.

    And you can count me as another who evaluated the evidence, made up my own mind, and concluded that there's no particular reason to believe that God actually exists, let alone that Christianity has some valid insight into His nature. So, in my case, the evidence led to a reasonable doubt (rather than a reasonable faith).

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  30. "My best answer is that God's ways are not the world's ways. We can look at the facts but at some point we have to realize that this is the Divine we are dealing with (you sense it at some point). Then you have to surrender to Him and say please show Yourself to me God. God hates a proud heart, and He hears a humble cry."

    Ah, there we go. The "God's ways are not our ways" response is the typical response by evangelicals and fundies when they are confronted with something that perplexes them and shows that there really just might be some problems with their faith. But I can't be too hard on you John. In the days before I became an agnostic/deist, I, too, was a fundy and "The God's ways are not our ways" response was one I used all the time along with others of course. I also think it is telling that so many evangelicals are quick to label others as "proud" when they are asking several honest questions. I think it shows a real insecurity.

    But to make my point, after realizing that I've had to respond too many times with the cliche Christian responses such as the one above to many problems concerning Christianity, I started to question that maybe, just maybe, something could be wrong here. Of course, this is one of MANY reasons why I am not a Christian today.

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