Most of these are questions sent to me several years ago by a friend who was just getting to know me (I think they were recycled from a new atheist website.) He was and is an atheist who had once been a very, very conservative evangelical minister. We’re still friends, though we realize that on some subjects we’re simply at an impasse. The questions here are common enough in popular debates, so they’re worth answering, and I did. I’ve tweaked the answers occasionally since then, whenever I noticed that I hadn’t been as clear as I could have been. I hope my answers are not unfriendly. If so, I apologize. I do have opinions. If I say unflattering things about Bible-thumpers, and ex-Bible-thumpers-turned-militant-atheists, I’m not identifying you, the reader, or anybody else with those a simplistic caricatures, though I do encourage you not to identify yourself with either of them. Incidentally, there was a conservative evangelical minister included in the initial exchange. He found my answers completely unacceptable. I’m not surprised. Episcopalians liked them—no surprise there either.
1. Why is God called loving or merciful when, in the Old Testament’s stories of the Israelite conquest, he specifically orders his chosen people to massacre their enemies, showing no mercy to men, women, even children and animals?
That’s a problem for literalist Christians who believe that every snapshot of God in the Bible is 100% accurate. That’s not what I or my church believe. Furthermore, that’s not what early Christians believed. They were not literalists. Literalism is the invention of “Bible-thumping” Protestants (not all Protestants) in the last 400 of Christianity’s 2,000 years. They rejected all the traditions that helped people make sense of the Bible. The first Christians called God loving, not because they were literalists, but because they read their Bibles through their shared experience of being inexplicably embraced by God, despite their own enmity, as Jesus, the rejected one, began to animate their lives. You undoubtedly consider the experience an illusion, but for the moment that’s beside the point. It was their experience, illusory or not. The Bible was a commentary on that shared experience from different angles, but the shared experience, the core of their living tradition, came first. When a passage showed God behaving nastily, early Christians assumed it had to be a caricature. That’s how the Bible should be read today, though Bible-thumpers, and ex-Bible-thumpers-turned-militant-atheists, have forgotten this. Because I approach the Bible in that originating way, I have no problem with how today’s most reputable scholars approach it. And I readily recognize that different writers of the Bible viewed God differently, in terms of their own agendas. Some thought God could not tolerate religious differences (these were the writers and editors of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings). Others, like Second Isaiah, the writer of Jonah, and St. Paul, emphasized God’s ultimate mercy for everybody over temporary wrath against wrongdoing. The writers of Ephesians and Colossians (probably not Paul) seem to have been universalists. So again, Christians in the first few centuries believed Jesus’ ongoing life fulfills the spiritual meaning of the Bible and simply ignored the literal meaning. (Examples: St. Paul allegorizes the Genesis stories of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21-5:1. St. Augustine, following his own teachers, taught that no passage should be taken literally if it makes God look immoral—On Christian Doctrine 3.10.14; 3.15.23.) It’s only in the seventeenth century that entire churches full of Bible-thumpers tried out the idea that every passage of the Bible was equally, clearly and literally informative about God and that it could therefore be immediately understood without listening to any other interpretations. It was a lousy idea. I have no problem calling God loving because the living traditions that produced the Bible, and the Bible itself, teach me that nasty-looking stories about God can’t define God. That’s a typically Episcopalian answer.
2. Does it make sense to claim, as the Bible does, that wrongdoing can be forgiven by magically transferring the blame from a guilty person to an innocent one, then punishing the innocent person?
No, it doesn’t make sense. But don’t assume that the Bible claims this (more here). As I read the Bible, God and God’s servants may suffer and bear the harmful consequences of human wrongdoing, in order to keep working with us, and that’s a major sacrifice. But it doesn’t require punishment for punishments’ sake, whether directly inflicted or transferred to somebody else. Most reputable historians and biblical scholars agree that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement was later developed by Anselm, Aquinas, and the first Protestants. It never showed up in Eastern Orthodoxy.
3. Why does the Bible routinely depict God as manifesting himself in dramatic, unmistakable ways and performing obvious miracles even before the eyes of nonbelievers, when no such thing happens in the world today?
Because the writers of the Bible exaggerated. There’s no reason to assume that God’s presence was ever unmistakable. People today, like me, report experiences of a sacred presence that can shake up their views of the everyday world. I’m not talking about dramatic visions or voices—more a constant, subtle awareness of an inescapable presence. We find it natural to assume that people had similar experiences back then, some decisively more vivid than any of mine. I’m in no position to dictate what they actually saw or heard. Maybe it was beyond what I now think possible. I wasn’t there. Still, as their stories circulated they got embellished. Sometimes, as in the Talmud, everybody seemed to know that the stories were embellished in order to make a point, and they didn’t have a problem with that. Did you ever notice that Paul, the earliest New Testament writer, never refers to Jesus’ alleged miracles, unless you count his rather mystical experience of the living Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15. But even there he denies that it was physical: “risen” bodies are spiritual, not physical. The Gospels report all kinds of miracles, but they came decades later and show definite signs of embellishment. But again, given storytelling practices like Midrash in the Talmud, there’s no reason to assume that anybody was being fraudulent. Embellishments were ok, as long as they made a point. In any case, reports about past miracles are no substitute for experiencing an inescapable sacred presence here and now.
4. Why do vast numbers of Christians still believe in the imminent end of the world when the New Testament states clearly that the apocalypse was supposed to happen 2,000 years ago, during the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporaries?
There are also vast numbers of Christians who don’t believe this and never did. Again, you’re assuming that American, ultra-conservative, Bible-thumping Protestants represent the majority of Christians. They don’t. Though I agree that their numbers are depressingly vast. I don’t know why they hold on to that belief. I tried to embrace it myself for a few years in the 1970s, but it just didn’t take. Paul clearly believed it would happen soon, maybe while he still lived. He was mistaken. Despite an escape clause (nobody knows the day or the hour), Jesus is reported to have said that all this stuff would happen within the lifespan of his generation. It didn’t. Bible-thumpers have a problem admitting this, and ex-Bible-thumpers-turned-militant-atheists think admitting this disproves the Bible. It does, I admit, help disprove a Bible-thumping view of the Bible, but as I keep reiterating, I don’t belong to either group. Many New Testament scholars think that Jesus originally preached that God’s reign is already arriving, but it’s germinating like a mustard seed, fermenting like yeast. Of course it’s always guesswork when people try to separate the “original” Jesus from the narrated Jesus. People look for his bombastic return today because they want somebody to step in and prove them right. I’m not counting on that. I don’t need proof to be convinced that the best way to love God is to love (and thus respect!) others who will never be just like me. We probably agree about that, except for the God part.
5. Why do Christians believe in the soul when neurology has found clear evidence that the sense of identity and personality can be altered by physical changes to the brain?
Because many Christians ignore the Bible when they talk about souls. Later Christians borrowed the idea of an immortal soul from their Greek influenced culture. The Bible seems mostly to deny a soul/body dualism. Paul insisted that any life beyond this one would have to be embodied in some incomprehensible way (“spiritually”). I believe that my own self wouldn’t exist now as it does without my own body, and that changes in my body can change who I am. But I can also make changes in my body happen. I’m doing that all the time. I’m not just a passive byproduct of my body, even though I constantly depend on embodiment. Neurology is no threat to this. Anybody who says and means “I” or “You” already believes that selves are more than third-person descriptions, neurological or otherwise. And “self” is just a modern substitute for “soul.”
6. If it was always God’s plan to provide salvation through Jesus, why didn’t he send Jesus from the very beginning, instead of waiting thousands of years?
I don’t assume that God foreknew exactly what role Jesus would play all along, or even that there would be that specific human being named Jesus. Most biblical passages portray God as one who keeps altering plans in response to human decisions. The goal of reconciliation doesn’t change, but the way of reaching the goal does. Jesus’ life embodied the reconciliation that God has been working toward ever since there has been a need for reconciliation. It didn’t start with Jesus or even with Abraham. And it doesn’t end there either. The basic biblical storyline is that God’s plan is to do whatever it takes to foster reconciliation. I believe that continuing to embody the communion of God’s Spirit in the living Jesus is my way to do this and that it’s worth sharing with everybody. But God will keep doing whatever it takes. That’s how the story goes.
7. Don’t you know that Jesus is mostly (maybe totally) a made-up character? Doesn’t that disprove Christianity?
I and other progressive Christians do recognize that many early stories about Jesus mix fact with fiction. Scholars often disagree about which is which. In the first century world this mixture was an accepted way of making the past come alive in the present. (Google “midrash.”) Can we prove that Jesus existed? No. We can’t prove that St. Paul existed either, though I don’t know of any historian who doubts that. Historically speaking, all we can credibly show (I wouldn’t say “prove”) is that, starting in the first century, people’s lives were utterly transformed by stories of this amazingly embracing person who seemed to be embracing them even more amazingly after his execution. Again, we recognize that this impact of Jesus on his first followers inspired a whole variety of creative (“made-up”) storytelling. For them, as for us today, he was not just a figure of the past but a living presence animating the very stories they wrote. So it’s no surprise if many stories about him were embellished to convey how radical his impact was and is. We’re not troubled by polemical, mostly self-published writers who argue that he never existed, since they are not taken seriously by the majority of secular historians. (Google “peer review.”) If secular historians start taking them seriously, we’ll pay more attention, but right now they have about as much credibility as people who deny Barack Obama’s U.S. citizenship. We have no reason to doubt that Jesus’ all-embracing life among his followers awakened them to the all-embracing life they called God, that his faithfulness to that life got him executed, and that afterwords his followers were surprised to experience him as even more all-embracingly alive. That’s the basic storyline that his earliest followers, like St. Paul, preached, and that we still preach today. That’s the storyline you’d have to discredit in order to discredit Christianity as we practice it. I have more to say about that here: Jesus As an Historical Figure.
8. Since the Bible states that God does not desire that anyone perish, but also states that the majority of humankind is going to Hell, doesn’t this show that God’s plan of salvation is a failure even by his own standard? If this outcome is a success, what would count as a failure?
The Bible is not clear even about the existence of Hell, much less about how many people might wind up there. Some New Testament writers were universalists, as were many of the Church Fathers, as I’ve already said. So again the way this question is framed is wrong from the outset. A fairly consistent theme of the Bible is that God never stops working toward reconciliation, though perhaps we never stop trying to avoid it. Is that a failure on God’s part? That would depend on God’s expectations, and ours.
9. Why didn’t God create human beings such that they freely desire to do good, thus removing the need to create a Hell at all? (If you believe this is impossible, isn’t this the state that will exist in Heaven?)
We’ve already dealt with misconceptions about Hell. You seem to equate freely desiring to do good with being programmed to do good automatically. That’s not freedom. And I don’t speculate about afterlife, since the New Testament never provides details outside of parables and Revelation’s bizarre visions. Genesis, in ancient, flat-earth terms, depicts God repeatedly summoning multiply creative community from a chaos that already existed, with further chaos and conflict as inevitable byproducts of that. The common vision of both testaments is that reconciliation can exhaust and outlast any chaos or conflict. I don’t know if reconciliation needs to come to an end in this life or beyond. Maybe participating right now in everlasting reconciliation is a better glimpse of paradise than someday singing celestial campfire songs.
10. Is it fair or rational for God to hide himself so that he can only be known by faith, then insist that every single human being find him by picking the right one out of thousands of conflicting and incompatible religions?
Does God hide? Or is God by definition the ultimate, ever-present and utterly engaging reality too intimately involved with us to be observed the way we observe ordinary objects (which are limited by definition)? In that case, maybe it’s not God who’s hiding but we who are looking too far away. My experience confirms that most of us are indeed inattentive about the constant, inescapable, unsettling presence of the sacred, which some of us rightly continue to call God. We also tend to suppress anything in experience that seems immune to our efforts to control everything—we suppress our deepest feelings but also our deepest awareness that we can’t escape a relentless summons to community where none of us gets to call the shots. When we do that God isn’t hiding. We are hiding from God just as we hide from ourselves and anything unsettling. But what’s more than fair, the biblical storyline goes, is that our hiding doesn’t keep God from working with us toward reconciliation, regardless of the religious or irreligious choices we make. On top of that, I don’t think God is as concerned as some of us are about our getting all our beliefs exactly right. If they move us toward reconciliation, they’re good enough for God to work with. Paths can differ in theory without being incompatible in practice. You can find as much to support that view of God in the Bible as you can find to support a narrower view.
11. If you had the power to help all people who are suffering or in need, at no cost or effort to yourself, would you do it? If so, why hasn’t God done this already?
God is helping already, just not controlling. The underlying theme of the Bible is that God always has and is still doing just that—not controlling, but helping: God never stops doing whatever it takes to work with all of us toward reconciliation, though one might say that this costs God everything. According to the basic storyline, from the beginning God summons multiply creative community from primal chaos, where multiple, uncontrollable and unpredictable responses inevitably produce more chaos, conflict and pain. That’s an unpreventable consequence of summoning multiply creative community from chaos. But, the storyline narrates, God bears all consequences with us, whether devastating or delightful, on the way into further, multiply creative community (with its further chaotic byproducts). That’s the basic storyline of Jesus’ life and presence, but also the basic storyline of God’s life and presence in Israel long before Jesus’ birth. The storyline shows us that, ultimately, the only effective power God seems to have with a multiply creative community is the power to keep summoning every bit of it from chaos into further community, no matter how many unforeseen detours that involves, and the storyline shows us many unforeseen detours. You can call this power a kind of “sovereignty” or “omnipotence” (the power to summon multiply creative community from chaos is immeasurably greater than any other power—certainly greater than any ability to control the uncreative), but I find those terms misleading. God is helping all the time, helping immeasurably. We can help too, and that should be our focus.
12. What’s the evidence for this God you keep talking about so confidently?
My evidence is nothing less than every moment of existence, sufficiently noted. When I pay enough attention, I experience every moment of existence as a relentless summons from chaos into multiply creative community: I’m summoned to arise anew from the vast mixture of community and chaos that brought me to this moment; I take all of that and remix it into something somewhat new, releasing this novelty back into the mixture; I and the mixture are momentarily renewed, somewhat; and then the process starts over, though never quite the same. It’s so inescapable for me that if others deny experiencing this, I can’t help presuming that they aren’t paying enough attention. They’re like people who try to tell me that awareness is only an illusion, failing to note that illusions can’t happen where there is no awareness.
If I experience every moment of existence this way, the simplest presumption is that every moment of existence beyond my experience is this way too. And everything I now know about existence beyond my experience readily lends itself to viewing it in these terms, especially with the help of process thought. Process thought holds that any moment of existence anywhere arises anew from a vast mixture of community and chaos, remixes it into something somewhat new, releasing its novelty back into the mixture, yielding a somewhat new mixture of community and chaos. (More here) That’s just what momentary existence fundamentally is, no matter where or when it happens. Every experience illustrates this. It’s how we learn to identify moments as moments. And momentary existence is in turn fundamental to every other sort of existence. Every experience illustrates that too. Show me any other type of existence that doesn’t depend on this momentary existence. Try to think of any supposed non-momentary existence without relying on momentary existence to think it. To presume that momentary existence could be absent anywhere is blatantly metaphysical speculation, never supported by experience. It’s anti-empirical. I seem to have all the evidence anybody could reasonably demand for viewing and responding to existence itself (or if you prefer, Being Itself) as the relentless summons from chaos into multiply creative community. And that, I and countless others claim, is the fundamental storyline of the biblical God.