I received an anonymous-ish email from a group of friends wanting to engage questions that had been previous shut down by the churches they had tried to ask them in. I share their questions here, and my attempt at first responses because I think we all carry questions, doubts, and fumbling attempts at answers. And we need to be willing to offer them up in order to let others know their questions, and their fumbling attempts at faithfulness, are not alone. We are all a lot like Peter, trying to walk on water to prove we are much more confident than we really are… let us be as willing as Peter to be wrong in an endeavor to walk more deeply in the way of Jesus.
I feel a need to add two thoughts before I address the individual questions:
1) Poor Christianity / Theology / Church practice can easily lead to one questioning Christianity as a whole. In such questioning however I think we need to take care to separate two things out from each other as best we can (and it isn’t always easy): the stated “Truth” of Christianity as spoken by a particular church or person, and the validity of any faith in the way of Jesus Christ. This is to say I think there is some really garbage Christian theology (yes, very judgmental of me – an impulse I try to check but lets face it some things really are garbage and I can be as judgmental as the next person regardless of my attempts not to be) out there but that doesn’t mean that garbage is the fault of Jesus and the way he attempts to lead us in faithful relationship to God and one another… its reflective of the abusive or non-substantive way that those person/s articulates that faith. Does this difference make sense? I do not mean that you cannot criticize Jesus, God, or the way of life we are invited to as disciples of Christ. Criticize away – even the Bible does. But those criticisms are different from criticizing a particular church’s articulation of faith.
2) That last gets at a difference in some ways between faith and religion. Christianity as a religion is problematic (and I say that as one very invested in it). It creates institutions that seek to promote themselves and defines themselves apart from the movement of an itinerant preacher like Jesus and his first followers. The second part of that is that the life of faith is a matter of constant interpretation. It is a dynamic rather than static thing. My answers then are conditional. They are how I interpret the teachings of God and God’s people. Others can take those same teachings and interpret them differently. Some do so in a way that they believe their interpretation is flawless and normative (that all people should believe the same way). I am not one of those people (maybe occasionally but not usually). Its possible I would answer these questions differently next week than I will today… its certain I would next year.
Now to the particular questions themselves:
1) Why did God seem so mean in the Old Testament? Why would a loving God demand the death of so many people: Exodus 35:2, Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 and 22: 13-21, Leviticus 20:13? Why did all the firstborn children in Egypt have to die just because their king was stubborn? Numbers 16: 41-49-death just for complaining? Deuteronomy 13: 6-10, kill family and friends just for having another religion and speaking about it with you?
You sure you don’t want to start with something a little lighter? 🙂 I can’t really answer for God. God had a bad day? I’m not being flippant here. I wish I could answer this better and I will try a bit. Ultimately? I don’t know. There are dark and violent aspects to most spiritual traditions. Why? On some level I believe that is three-fold. One – God is Holy (that means basically… OTHER) and we cannot fully comprehend God and there is some aspect of fear before that which exists on such a different level of being that we are insignificant before God. I think articulations of such Holiness become full of fear, capriciousness, and yes death as a way of making real the different order of being between creation and Creator. Second – I believe Scripture is as much a human document as a divine document. That is I would not consider the Bible to be the dictated and inerrant word of God. Humans wrote it and when we write a story – divinely inspired or otherwise – the story takes on our character. So I believe God, even in Scripture, looks something like we imagine God to be as much as it is the revelation of God. I believe some of the violence of God is the tellers of the story projecting their own violent ways onto God. Third – the Bible is, as you mention earlier, a pre-scientific story. In such a world where so many causes of effects in the world were not seeable and knowable were thus credited to God. If someone couldn’t have children it was God punishing their sin. If someone died for unknown reasons it was an act of God… so was weather and the growth and fall of nations. So I wonder at times how much bloodshed is credited to God that wasn’t much more than the brokenness of creation. I can’t answer that… and yes there is danger (some would say an unacceptable one) of relativizing scripture in this way. And yet it works for me and somehow in the mix of all these things I believe I cannot understand the violence of God in these stories but I can stay in relationship with God. You might say – I extend grace to God just as God has done toward me.
2) If “Ann” was raised in a different culture and a different religion, upon her death, do Christians really believe she will go to Hell forever? If so, she was raised to believe her religion was right just like a lot of Christians. Why should she be punished forever for that?
Or another scenario:
If somebody was raised in an abusive home, grew up living a hard life, died early a sad broken person, never became a Christian. Would that person really go to Hell? If so, how come? They were abused and had a horrible emotionally crippling life, too broken down to accept anyone’s love, let alone believe in God and all because of their family members choices.
Hell. Again, some would answer yes to your questions. I do not agree with this. I believe Jesus died and descended into Hell by way of freeing creation from it. That is to say – I believe Hell, beyond the hell we create here on earth, to be an empty place. I’m a border line Universalist so I believe God desires to save all people, and who am I to say that God will fail. If such a place as Hell exists I would imagine its more likely to find people who knew full well what God desired of us and instead chose to turn that message to their own gain to the detriment of God’s people. Jesus keeps his greatest rebuke for the Pharisees when they become rooted in their own power and control. If there is such a place as Hell I believe it would be reserved for those of us who act in this way rather than in forgiveness and love. Read the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. You notice something? The sheep don’t know they are sheep. They don’t remember doing good things. They just did them. I bet you a fair number of those sheep had no clue about Jesus at all… but they lived in the same way as Jesus and thus got the point Jesus was after – live in love for one another. And the people who were goats? They wanted to do right by Jesus. The problem is they were saving their right for just Jesus. They were looking to do good only when they thought they would get something from it. And that didn’t work for Jesus who tells us the point is to see me in those who are least. Love your neighbor when that neighbor most looks like someone you DO NOT want to call neighbor.
I do not believe there is a place with Pearly Gates called Heaven and a place full of eternal fires called Hell. Not that tangibly at least – maybe its true, who knows – only God really. But I do imagine that the people you describe were welcome into God’s loving embrace, that were at peace, blessed, and made whole- and I take a comfort in the belief that the same will await me one day whether I’m aware of it or not. This is the Gospel. It’s a very religious thing to try to put gates around such love…. I firmly believe God would rip such gates down and look at us with that look that spoke a thousand words: still you do not understand grace.
3) The bible was written so long ago. The world and people have changed so much since. Technology, science, medicine, people’s concepts of life have come so far. Is the bible still relevant? Why is there no new teachings/ideas to keep up with all the other changes?
I believe Scripture operates as myth (yes this would be a scary word to Scriptural literalists but that’s their problem not mine). That is they are deep and abiding stories that seek to understand the life of God in the midst of God’s people. I am not a slave in Egypt. But I can understand what it means to be a pawn in systems that are so big I am voiceless and powerless. I am not an exile in Babylon but I can understand what it means to be forsaken even by God. I am not an unnamed woman who has hemorrhaged blood for 12 years becoming more and more hopeless and isolated. But I can feel the good news of having one who sheds titles given to him like Prince of Peace, Savior, and Lord and also stops what he is doing to acknowledge me because he thinks I am important enough to stop on his way to “important people’s aid” to speak directly to me and welcome me back into the community. These stories don’t need technology and science to speak their truths. They do require the work of interpretation to find how they speak to us and our context. That was always true, and always will be. And I believe God prefers it that way because it requires us to participate in the story telling even as listeners (though too many people wish “experts” would just tell them what to do… to this I believe God says: no).
I think there are lots of new teachings. We simply have ceased to call these teachings a part of the Bible. Another day we can talk about how the Bible came to be but for today your current questions are enough and I think its enough to say: the canonical content of the Bible is closed but the process of mining these stories by the power of the Holy Spirit for a message to us today is a constantly open and occurring and necessary. God is Living. Nothing is done or over.
4) Why do so many Christians and churches use fear as a tactic to sell Christianity? Hell is often used as a threat to freak people into going to church/being a Christian. Many times I’ve been told “what if you’re wrong, you’ll burn in hell forever. It seems wrong to believe in a religion just in case because you don’t want to burn in hell.
If someone has a faith that they believe is necessary for salvation, and if someone believes that this faith is perfect and untarnished and must be defended to stay that way… I guess they will do anything to protect it and anything to make other people to adopt it. I came across a thought from Carl Jung (psychologist) the other day, “If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling. If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude.”
If you think that Heaven is the destination we are all aiming for and that a certain belief in Jesus is the only bridge to get to it – you will do all sorts of things to make sure people do, and you will live in a constant worry that you are still on the bridge. Such things place a great deal of dependence for salvation on our will, choices, and life rather than on God. And I must say it mystifies me. Shaming people into good works is not itself a good work. And you cannot create love by guilt or by force. If God is love, you have to move people to love by living love. An author I like named Eugene Peterson says we must not simply ask What would Jesus do, but How would Jesus do it. So all I can really say is – I agree with you. I don’t understand fear as a motivator to Christianity, and Hell as a threat (like the naughty and nice list of Santa Claus). And no – belief as “hedging your bets” is not really a life forming faith. Its empty words.
5) Why do we pray? If it changes Gods mind then he is not sovereign. If it does not change Gods mind then it doesn’t seem to have a point.
A question for you: If God chooses to change God’s mind… does that mean God isn’t sovereign? It is still God choosing to do something by God’s own will… even if the suggestion didn’t originate with God.
A second thought. I believe there is a cathartic (and thus healing) effect of voicing our challenges, hurts, and laments. So even if God is not some doctor in the sky at our beck and call (and I don’t believe God is) merely “talking it out with God” can itself have healing effects. I think prayer is best understood as a conversation with God. We may make it about our wants and needs… but it is meant to be a conversation of clarification. We discern what God’s will for us, we speak our will to God… we hopefully find some solace and togetherness in the conversation. It doesn’t mean we get what we want. It doesn’t mean its clear and easy – when is conversation ever clear and easy? Maybe it is amongst good friends… a reason to practice prayer regularly so we get better at that particular conversation. So I guess what I want to say to you is… what do you understand prayer to be about?
6) We have free will, but it seems like a joke. We either accept Jesus and go to paradise for eternity or refuse and upon death be damned to hell forever. How is that freedom of choice when it is the same as having a gun to your head?
Do we have free will? Is this a given? To some degree I would agree with you and to some extant I would not. I certainly would not agree with the next sentence. That is a particular articulation of one interpretation of Christianity. It does not speak for me or mine. I think there is a bigger question of free will – which I’m not sure you are asking – about is our will ever really free (we are after all products of our environment, of systems around us, of our parents… etc. We aren’t nearly so free as we imagine). I think here you are still wrestling with this second sentence. If this is the sum of Christianity what is the point… and in that case I would say: I don’t know. I reject it and so I’m not even interested in discovering what would be the point of such a thing. I know the world of which you speak and are wrestling with (recovering from?) and how it speaks its Truth of Christianity. All I can say is that it is not the only way of understanding Christianity and it isn’t mine and it bugs me to hear it because I know how much abuse has been done in the name of Christ by such articulations. “God is love, those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.” I John 4:17 (might be 16 I’m getting lazy and not looking it up at the moment… you’ll find it – and trust me I’m not making it up.) If these words are true. (And I believe they are.) Gun to the head theology is anathema. A loving God would not extort devotion. Such a God invites us to understand that the only way we love God is by being loving people towards ourselves and each other… all others.
7) What’s the point of Satan, why did God create him if he knew what he would do? Why does God bother letting him exist now?
What the point? Maybe we should start with who (or what) is Satan? Hasatan (in Hebrew) mean the accuser. Early in Scripture Satan is not necessarily an adversary to God. Satan is like the prosecuting attorney. Satan is the “devil’s advocate” of God’s heavenly court. Only later do we begin to think of Satan as an actual force or advocate of evil. This is probably for many reasons… Judaism does not start out monotheistic but becomes so – so we have to eliminate non-God god-like beings. Also we have to understand why God’s will doesn’t just happen and sometimes rather than blame ourselves we scapegoat Satan. Other times there is such palpable evil that can’t help but give it a name and agency… Satan. Lastly I think there times we don’t want to believe things of God and so we actually split God into two beings: God the good, and Satan the bad (aka bad-god). I think this is more about us and our child-like need to make the world black and white (even God) than it is really a truth of the nature of God. But what do I know – I have no special insight to such things. Satan is. Satan is not. I believe both of these things to be true. I could say more here but it would get confusing (as in I would begin to confuse myself) and I’ll hold off for now. All of these question require a bit of give and take in conversation so we’ll see what you do with that first foray.
8) What/who is God? He’s not really a man with grey hair and beard, wearing a robe, sitting in the clouds, right? If not what is he, what does he look like or resemble?
Well, you began and end with HUGE questions. Do I get to say I don’t know? There are many answers to this question and none of them is right and none are probably wrong and absolutely none is the full answer. We talk about Jesus Christ as God’s self-revelation – he gives us insight into who and what God is. But the whole of God? It would be like asking if we could find a place from which to view the whole universe… which, if scientists are right, is growing – at least until it starts shrinking – so how could we ever do such a thing? Even if for a moment we glimpsed the grandeur of it all – in the next moment it would be more than it was, and in truth we lack the faculties to even “see” it. Such is God I think. There is a mystery to God we cannot fully comprehend. And yet in all that majesty God chose to descend into human form out of desire to be in relationship to us. Little ol’ us. God wants to know us, and be known by us. What does God look like? I believe God looks like you and your husband and your friends sitting around asking questions, God looks like a gay family member who has been hurt and psychologically abused by the very people who profess to be devoted to love, God looks like a child whose eyes are full of wonder, God looks like the sky on a clear night where you stair up into an abyss and you are pretty sure there must be someone like you on some other world who is staring back at you right now. (okay maybe that’s just me.) To quote it again, “God is love.” We have a need to turn God into a person, but God is more than that, and pursuing God as some external object we can catch and hold onto is, in some way, to try to control God – who is infinite – by making God less. This is why to say God is love works so well for me (though it wasn’t my idea) – you cannot hold love. You cannot even fully define it. But you can feel it, and you can see it when it’s happening. So that I can see something and say – God is in that. But it is very hard to come up with some objective definition of God apart of the life of God’s creation.
This may feel wholly (and holy) inadequate. But I’ll let that stand as a first response. Please question my responses; let me know where they don’t work – what the problems with them are, or what further questions they inspire. And we will go from there. Like I said – next week I would probably say something different!