“Born Again”

John 3–4

LDS manual: here


To show that stories about Jesus are fictional, and to encourage the reader to take control of their life, without the need for supernatural assistance.


There are two stories covered in this lesson:

  • Jesus tells Nicodemus that you must be “born again”
  • Jesus teaches the woman at the well

Both are marred by linguistic implausibility and biblical contradiction. Let’s get to them.

Main ideas for this lesson

Linguistic evidence: Nicodemus story implausible

So the first part of this story concerns a clandestine visit to Jesus, by the first Irishman recorded in the Bible: Nick O’Deamus. (Dad joke alert.)

John 3:1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
3:2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
3:4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
3:5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

As a believer, the most puzzling thing about the Nicodemus story is how thick he was. Was he really that literal-minded? Didn’t he understand allusion and metaphor? What a dumb-ass. Especially since he would have been raised in a culture steeped in scriptural allegory.

Maybe he was a bit thick — nobody seems to understand anything Jesus says in this entire reading — or maybe there’s another explanation.

Bart Ehrman, in his book Did Jesus Exist?, points out that the Greek word used for again is anothen: You must be born anothen. This Greek word means again, but it also means from above.

This reading makes sense: Jesus says that someone must be born “spiritually”. Nicodemus is confused — not because he’s stupid — but because of the double meaning. Or maybe he’s being clever and he’s playing on the double meaning. Either way, Jesus then has to reiterate the spiritual aspect of the thing.

Reading it this way makes the story work, and gives Nicodemus some credit. But here comes Ehrman’s point: this double meaning only works in Greek. It doesn’t work in Aramaic, which is the language Jesus and Nicodemus would have been speaking. Which means that this exchange couldn’t have happened at the time; it would have been made up by the Bible’s Greek-speaking author. This makes sense when we consider that the gospels were written long after the alleged events.

Thanks to David Austin for this tip. And feel free to send me your biblical implausibilities.

On being “born again”

One of my favourite daydreams is that I’m young again, but with the intellect and insight that I have now. In my imagination, I’m able to rerun the situations I bollixed up in my life, and redo them better this time. My new improved younger self has done some amazing things: been nicer to the picked-on kids in my school, told Mormons they were full of it, stopped dating certain people, and ditched the mission, going instead to my wife’s house to introduce myself.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t often give us do-overs, and you don’t get to have the insight and knowledge you have without the experience gained from the bad choices you made. Darn!

So I can see how being “born again” would have some appeal, and it would be especially appealing for people who are at a dead end in their lives. People who want to start over. That’s what Christianity pretends to offer — another chance. And who doesn’t love a second-chance story?

Have you noticed, though — and I can’t find the quote that gave me this idea — Christianity doesn’t have much to offer people who are happy and well-adjusted? They were never the people I taught on my mission; the most receptive people were the ones who were having a tough time, at the end of their rope, and looking for a break. And this is why Christians argue that life without Jesus is meaningless: they need you to feel like your godless life is meaningless, just so you’ll buy what they’re selling.

Because Christianity makes most of its gains when people are suffering, we can predict that Christianity would prosper most by increasing and manufacturing human misery.

Ask: How does Christianity increase human misery?
Possible answers:

  • It shames its adherents with sexual guilt.
  • It gives people wrong information, which they then use to make bad life choices.
  • In some cases, it opposes a social safety net that would make people more secure and less needy.

People sometimes talk about how Christianity provides comfort, with its talk of an afterlife and a life with a loving god for eternity. Atheism doesn’t offer such fluffy fairy tales. On the other hand, we don’t suffer from artificial guilt and artificial dependency engendered by the fictional concept of sin. In the words of Sam Harris: Atheism is just a way of clearing the space for better conversations. We don’t need to retreat to some kind of womb and be born again. We need to move forward with the experience we’ve got, face the problems we have, and create the kind of life we want.

Additional lesson ideas

He’s still Jehovah

Many people are of the impression that the god of the Old Testament is brutal and punitive, and then in the New Testament, he became Jesus and chilled out. But some NT scriptures remind us that it’s still the same guy, same story.

Jesus tells Nicodemus about salvation — which sounds great — but no one seems to notice the implied threat:

John 3:36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

It all sounds a bit like “Kissing Hank’s Ass“: if you kiss his ass, you get a million dollars, and if you don’t, he’ll kick the shit out of you.

Watch whichever version you find more appealing.


In the story of the Samarian woman at the well — kind of a funny story actually — there’s a discrepancy. Do the Samarians accept Jesus, or not?

In one version, they do:

John 4:39 And many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman, which testified, He told me all that ever I did.

Later on in the same book, they don’t.

John 9:52 And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him.
9:53 And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem.

Strange, if he had so many followers. Well, it’s difficult to keep things straight from chapter to chapter.

Brodie awards

It’s Brodie season, and GDG has been nominated for two categories! So check out all the great ex-Mormonness over the year, and vote for GDG if you feel like. Thanks.