The strongest type of atheism holds that there is no God. Strong atheists (as opposed to weak atheists) don’t just not believe that there is a God, but they believe that there is no God. Now, I’m not a brilliant person like some atheists are, but even still, I don’t get this brand of atheism. I don’t get how someone can be certain that God doesn’t exist. I mean, have we searched every corner of the universe for God? Have we looked beyond Alpha Centauri or, for that matter, in my attic? I’ve never actually been up in my attic. The access is horrible. Who knows what strange divine being might be lurking in my attic. I do hear noises up there...
Agnosticism, however, might be more my style. Agnosticism is the belief that we don’t have enough knowledge (gnosis = knowledge) to believe in God one way or the other. I admire the humility of agnostics who admit that God might exist but we just don’t have enough knowledge or data to be certain.
Now, I am not an agnostic. I am a Trinitarian theist who worships a resurrected God-man who is, in my opinion, quite a Guy. But I spend a lot of my time doubting what I believe, sometimes holding onto my faith by my nervously trimmed-down fingernails. This is no embarrassment to me, even as a Christian pastor. Faith is hard, and I refuse to pretend otherwise. Pretending that we don’t have doubts leads people to overconfidence, arrogance and presumption. It does not challenge us to go any deeper in our intellectual understanding of faith. And it is a terrible apologetic for skeptics who have questions about religion they would never ask us because we are so damn certain they’re going to hell and we’re not.
That’s why, years ago, I promised myself I’d be honest about my doubts. (At least when I felt I could be.) And the reality is that on plenty of occasions I have nearly fallen into the murky unknown of agnostic disbelief. It seems to happen somewhat regularly, in fact.
Along those lines, I thought I’d take a risk (for those of you who can stand it) and share some of the more persuasive reasons that I can imagine might lead me to give up my faith. Of course, I’d like to think that I would never lose my faith—never, ever, Lord Jesus! I will never disown you! But I know myself too well. I know I am too fickle and faith is too hard. People lose their faith all the time, for various reasons—reasons I myself have wrestled with. Some of these reasons are less compelling to me, so I do not list them, here. For example, the “all Christians are hypocrites” argument is a tired trope, and I personally find it doesn’t seriously challenge the core of my faith. None of us should be surprised to know there are ignoramuses in our movement, whatever our movement is. In fact, I usually count myself among the ignoramuses of several different movements at any one given time.
No, I list here the six arguments that are most troublesome to me. None of these reasons by themselves would necessarily dissuade me from Trinitarian theism. Reason #4—my unconvincing prayer life—does not mean that Jesus did not rise from the dead. But taken together, they can have a slow but steady effect on those of us who occasionally find ourselves groping about in the darkened halls of doubt.
I should also say that I make no effort to rebut these arguments, at least not here in this blog post. Rebuttals come later. In fact, I thought of expanding this blog post and calling it, “Six Reasons I Might Lose My Faith…and 6 Reasons I Haven’t.” But I didn’t want to prematurely wrap things up all nice and tidy for nervous Christians who want answers to objections before really understanding the objections themselves. For now I just want to be honest about the disagreeable parts of my faith that keep me up at night wondering if Christianity is as true as I claim it is. If you have these doubts, at the very least, maybe this will make you feel a little less alone.
#6. I find it hard to believe that I am one of the special few people on earth who happen to have been born into the One True Religion.
Maybe you know what I’m talking about. Christians believe (as do Muslims, Mormons, Jews, etc.) that we each belong to the One True Religion. Most every religion claims superiority to all others. And even religions that don’t claim superiority to others still kind of do. Like the Baha’i faith, which attempts to blend all religions into one to eliminate this sort of religious arrogance. Except Baha'is still argue this approach to religion is more true than any other.
Here’s the rub, though. For the most part, people are born into countries and cultures which have a predominant religion that they generally end up joining, concluding furthermore that people of other religions are incorrect in their own religious conclusions. Now, isn’t it interesting how I was born a Christian and believe Christianity is the one true faith, while my neighbor was born a Muslim and believes that Islam is the one true faith? Wow! What a coincidence! I know this is simplistic, but it’s hard to deny the conclusion that a person’s religious convictions are not determined by logic or supernatural revelation or the painstaking search for truth, but on the rather incidental matter of where they were raised, and by whom.
This coincidence has left me feeling…uncertain. Sure, I have my arguments for being a Christian. And I also know there are lots of exceptions to this rule. People convert against their culture all the time. (Including my wife, in fact.) Nor does this tendency for people to follow the religion of their parents and culture necessarily mean that all religions are equally incorrect in their claims. There are lots of political systems in the world, and they all have their pros and cons. I, having grown up in a representative democracy, would still argue that democracy is better. (I know, I know…how ethno-centric of me.) But that’s the point: despite our best efforts, we can all be so blinded by our religio-, socio-, and ethnocentrism. How can I be sure that my religion is true while other religions are false, when they think the exact same thing as I do? Post-modernism has helped us all see how our culture informs our perspective on life, religion, and even reality itself. Atheists and agnostics observe that this limited cultural vision, combined with our general tendency to believe our ways are better than others' ways, results in all of us believing we’ve figured it out but others haven’t.
Now Christians (which I count myself among) have their reasons why this doesn’t mean that Christianity isn’t true and other religions aren’t false. But being the fair-minded guy that I am, I do wonder. How is it that we all think we’re right but most of us all seem to believe what our culture tells us to? Could it possibly be that we're not as right as we think we are?
#5. My personal experience of the supernatural doesn’t rise to the level of that of first-century believers in the New Testament, and the type of experience prescribed by Jesus as normative for people of faith.
As I read the New Testament, I am struck by the undeniable supernatural experience of first-century believers. In the book of Acts, when someone became a Christian they would experience something called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” in which they would speak in heavenly tongues and be healed of diseases and filled with inexpressible joy. The Apostle Peter explains this by quoting a prophesy of Joel’s that in the last days the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all people: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). Things got so Holy-Spirit crazy in the city of Corinth that the Apostle Paul had to lay down some rules on how people were to act when overwhelmed by the Spirit (1 Cor. 14). And speaking of Paul, even he came face to face with the divine. He saw (or rather, heard) the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and then was caught up in “the third heaven” in a vision so powerful that he was reluctant to even talk about it (2 Cor. 12:2).
This sort of Holy Spirit experience was the norm in the New Testament. But it is not my norm. I have never spoken in tongues. I have never experienced a miraculous healing (that I know of). I have never had a vision of Christ or heaven, or a dream that could be interpreted as heaven-sent. (Although the dream of me fronting Van Halen at Madison Square Garden was pretty divine!) Compared to the supernatural and highly experiential faith of New Testament believers, my faith is downright terrestrial. Sometimes even boring by comparison.
And I am not the only one. In fact, there are so many of us with non-Pentecostal faith that we have tried our best to reconcile it with the norms of Scripture, one way or another. Some people argue (to the irritation of Pentecostal Christians) that while the Holy Spirit might have once done crazy stuff in Bible times, he just doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore. With the arrival of the Bible, the Spirit has “ceased” his miraculous activity. (They’re called “cessationists.”) Other people say that the Holy Spirit has “moved on” to nations more open-minded and less cynical than the United States—places like Africa and Asia. Or some suggest that God is less active in the West, at least in miraculous ways, because we have medical and scientific technologies that lessen our need for the Holy Spirit’s miracle-working ways. Who needs the Great Physician when we have MRI machines?
There might be some truth to these explanations. Who knows? But I won’t deny that my very non-miraculous experience as a Christian raises serious questions, in my mind and heart, about whether or not I’m doing it right—or whether or not “it” is real at all. It makes me wonder if the Biblical authors exaggerated the spiritual experiences of first-century believers for effect. Don’t get me wrong: I want it to be real. I want to know the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, like the Bible says God wants. But why would God deny me such a powerful and undeniable experience of the Holy Spirit when he promises just that to anybody who wants it? It's unanswered questions like that which make me wonder if I'm on the wrong track.
#4. The quality of my prayer life leaves me with doubts that prayer is really that effective or if God—if he is real—is even listening to my prayers at all.
Not only does the Bible describe first-century believers who had some pretty impressive supernatural experiences, but it makes hard-to-ignore promises about the power of prayer. Jesus gets the ball rolling when he promises his followers that “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours” (Mk. 11:24). He sent his disciples out into the world to heal the sick and raise the dead, by the power of the Holy Spirit mediated through prayer (Mt. 10:8). James makes similar promises, that if anybody is confused, “he should ask God, who gives [wisdom] generously” (James 1:5). Later on he counsels those who are sick to visit the elders of the church, reminding them that “The prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
I’ve preached all this and I’ve prayed this way for years. But prayer doesn’t seem to work like that. Many reliable studies have been conducted which have demonstrated that praying for sick hospital patients has no direct result on their improvement. (Here’s one such Prayer Study.) And personally speaking, my own prayer life is something of a disappointment. And when I say “something of a disappointment,” I mean it really seems to suck. My so-called prayer life has caused me tremendous grief and frustration. I pray for guidance and get nothing. I pray for healing and get nothing. I pray for provision and come up empty. These unanswered prayers sometimes make me weep and wail like Jeremiah abandoned at the bottom of a cistern. (“Where the %&# are you, God, and why won’t you answer me?!”) When you’re praying for the healing and salvation of loved ones, children, and parishioners—as directed by Jesus, who promised that it would work—only to come up empty time and time again, it can leave you a little raw.
I’ve shared this with fellow believers who seem personally offended by the notion that God hasn’t answered my prayers. They challenge my sincerity, they challenge my method. Or they challenge my interpretation. One friend of mine insisted to me that God has, in fact, answered my prayers every time. He told me that when it seems God doesn’t answer my prayers he actually HAS answered my prayers--by saying “No,” or “Not yet.” I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I think that’s ridiculous. When I pray and wait for an answer, God doesn’t say “No” or “Not yet.” He says NOTHING. Is it because he’s mute? Is it because he doesn’t know English? Is he pre-occupied? Either way, I think this would be pretty rude and irrational of God, to say NOTHING but then expect me to think he means “No” or “Not Yet.” I mean, when my wife asks me a question and I stare at her and say nothing and she gets mad at me for being so rude, it doesn’t work when I tell her, “But by saying nothing I was really saying No or Not Yet, and you should have known that.”
Anyway, I still pray. I’m a Christian and, at the end of the day, I pray because I trust Jesus and Jesus prayed. And there have been moments when I think God may have actually, possibly, perhaps heard and answered my prayers. (Although those moments are never really slam-dunk did-you-see-that types of moments. They are more like maybe seeing a fox in the forest just before he disappears and then you never know.) So I’m maybe safe for now. But my struggles with prayer undercut the confidence I have in Jesus’ words in Scripture about prayer—and hence, about everything—which seem to describe a type of effectual prayer life I have not yet discovered and doubt is truly possible.
#3. The questionable ethics and dubious history of the Old Testament make it hard to take it seriously as a part of the authoritative Word of God.
There is an old heretical branch of Christianity called Marcionism (founded by Marcion) that found the God of the Old Testament intolerant and intolerable. At the very least, Marcion found the behaviors of this God woefully incompatible with the teachings of God's supposed Son Jesus, who arrived with a new revelation of love and kindness. Marcion solved this inconsistency by explaining away the Old Testament God as a lower-level god who is not as powerful or authoritative as the all-forgiving Father-God of Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, the Church deemed Marcionism a heresy, given that nothing Jesus says in the New Testament would lead us to believe that the God of the Old Testament was not the God who sent him to earth. But I understand Marcion’s thinking. I mean, have you read the Old Testament?! When God sends the Israelites into the land of Canaan, he gives them some pretty brutal instructions to destroy all the inhabitants—including men, women, children and animals (Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:6; 20:16-18). And in the book of 1 Samuel God directs Saul and the Israelites to “Go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys" (1 Sam. 15:2-3). Friends, this is genocide. Genocide is bad. We put genocidal murderers in jail. Like, forever. I have read the theological justifications for how God could reasonably ask the Israelites to commit genocide, and they are interesting but not entirely satisfying.
The Old Testament gives me problems at a different level, too. I know this is controversial, but here goes. It is increasingly accepted by scholars—even evangelical Old Testament scholars—that certain events in the Old Testament did not necessarily take place the way we think they did. Take the sacking of Jericho. In Joshua 6 the author records the miraculous taking of Jericho as the Israelites marched around the town for seven days, blowing their trumpets and then watching the walls come a-tumbling down. The story has served as a powerful lesson in obedience and perseverance. The problem is that archaeologists have located, with near certainty, the city of Jericho. It has been thoroughly excavated. It is nothing like the town described in Joshua. In fact, during the era in question, Jericho didn't even have walls. At the time the Israelites were theoretically settling into the land of Canaan, Jericho would have been a small town easily overcome. (For more on this, check out the discussion on the historicity of Jericho in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, published by IVP.)
Fundamentalists ignore these archaeological findings, pointing out (rightfully so, I must add) that archaeology can be misleading. But it’s not just Jericho that gives fundamentalists problems. It’s the story of the greater Canaanite settlement, the tale of Jonah and the conversion of Nineveh, and the Exodus from Egypt—all Old Testament accounts (among others) that struggle to find confirmation in the historical and archaeological record.
The fact that the Old Testament is a big, confusing book with questionable ethics and dubitable history is old news. Heck, Marcion came up with his heresy in the middle of the second century. So I’m a little late to the party. But the problems associated with the Old Testament are still there, and the answers to these questions are not always satisfying. Taken together with other faith-challenges, they make it hard to take the Old Testament seriously as part of the authoritative Word of God. And hence, it becomes even harder to take the WHOLE Bible seriously as the authoritative Word of God.
#2. Science has become very good at explaining mysterious things about the universe that had previously been explained by God.
Perhaps you’ve heard about “the God of the gaps.” It’s a phrase used by Christians to argue for the existence of God as the only explanation for phenomena in the natural world that we cannot yet explain. God “fills in the gaps.” For example, Isaac Newton had a theory for how the planets moved through the sky, but there was a gap in their movements he couldn’t explain, so he resorted to God. God filled in the gap.
The problem here is that science is very good at explaining things we previously didn’t understand, and removing the so-called “evidence” we had for believing in God. Science eventually explained the movement of the planets through the sky in a way that did not require a supernatural act of God. This left believers with one less reason to believe in God. This is important, because so many of our arguments for God are based on God-of-the-gaps thinking. Even in our personal lives, we think in God-of-the-gaps terms. If our child recovers from a mysterious illness in a way that baffles the doctors, we thank God for performing a miracle. But how do we know he did? Maybe we just don’t yet have the instruments to observe how the body can heal itself. Science is always learning things about our bodies, and the universe, that we didn’t previously know. We once thought that God caused thunderstorms. Now we know they are caused by weather patterns. We once thought God brought comets to earth. Now we know they are leftovers from the creation of our solar system, brought here by gravity, not ominous world events.
The reason this shakes my faith is because many of my reasons for believing are arguments that, theoretically, science could eventually explain. Take, as an example, the fine-tuning argument for God. Christian apologists will argue that the universe seems incredibly fine-tuned to support life. Everything from the rate of the expansion of the universe to the distance of the earth from the sun seems to support life in a way that increases the probability that the universe was specially designed by a Creator. But this could just be another God-of-the-gaps argument until science comes up with a better explanation. Atheists argue that the odds are HIGHLY stacked in science’s favor. In fact, quantum physicists are already postulating theories to explain the fine-tuning of the earth and universe. Perhaps our universe is one of a multitude of universes (a multiverse)--which there may be some evidence for. This would explain how the universe could seem so fine-tuned but might just be one of an infinite numbers of universes. In an infinite number of universes, we would expect one to turn out like this. It seems like an outlandish explanation. But at one point, every scientific explanation for naturally-observed phenomena seemed outlandish. (Can you say "Galileo"?)
#1. The gospel message of Christianity doesn’t always make sense to me, or align with my personal understanding of what’s going on in my life and the world around me.
As I learned it in Sunday school growing up, and then in college when I became a Christian, and then in seminary as I was preparing to be a pastor, the message of Christianity is this: we are sinners who are descendants of an original sinless couple (Adam and Eve) who disobeyed God in the garden of Eden by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God cursed them for their disobedience and banished them and their offspring from the garden. The creation was therefore subject to death and decay, all as a result of that one fateful act. What’s worse, all the descendants of this first couple shared in their sin, which was genetically passed down to us, and which we all experience as pain, disease, sin, war, conflict and corruption. We are all therefore subject to the judgment of God for our part in this horror show.
Because of his intrinsic love and grace, however, God was not prepared to give up on his creation. He called forth one people, Israel, from which came his one and only Son, Jesus. Jesus volunteered to come to earth and die as a payment for our sins, satisfying the wrath of God, allowing us to be forgiven and receive an eternal inheritance in the hereafter. And after paying for the debt of our sin, Jesus did not stay dead, but rose from the grave to demonstrate the power of God, escape the dungeon of death, and give us hope that we, too, could live forever with him in heaven.
That is, basically, the Christian gospel. (Or at least, one version of it. Which is a key component of any rebuttal.) I’ve preached that message and on very confident days I believe it. But I’m not always sure I get it. And it doesn’t always make much sense to me. Sometimes, it makes so little sense that I wonder how it can possibly be true.
Take the origins of sin. Practically 99.9% of all scientists who think about these things don’t believe there’s any way all of humanity could have descended from two original human beings. Additionally, death and destruction have been around a lot longer than 6,000 years--the age of the earth as estimated by people who read the creation story literally. And the problems with the origin of humanity pale in comparison to the character of God in the story. What kind of God plants a tree in the Garden of Eden that, if eaten from, will practically destroy the earth? (Put that tree on the top shelf, God! With the cookies that must not be eaten.) And what kind of God allows a talking, tempting serpent to wander around the sacred garden unsupervised? And what kind of God subjects billions of ignorant human beings to the tormenting fires of hell because of one stupid act of our naked ancestors?
Christians say that even aside from Adam and Eve’s sin, we should all be held accountable by virtue of our own acts of disobedience. But an eternity’s worth of wrath for the comparatively minor sins that I’ve committed over the course of my life? Sheesh. I know I stole Penny Burleson’s crayons in third grade, but I said I was sorry, and I gave them back to her. Cut me some slack. The Bible claims that God is a loving father, but what loving father would hand down that kind of judgment? Either I’m really underestimating the severity of my crimes, or I’m underestimating how much God hates and must punish even the smallest infraction of his moral law.
And I haven’t even mentioned the issue of Jesus’ death on the cross. If God has enough power and authority to make the consequences of our sin go away by his son’s death, why can’t he make the consequences of our sin go away by, say, playing a game of Monopoly? Less messy, more fun. (If you like Monopoly, that is.) And if the logic of Jesus dying is that he paid the penalty so we don’t have to, someone should point out that the penalties are not actually the same. Jesus didn’t go to hell forever, like we purportedly should have.
I know, I know…there are answers to these questions. Some of you are clawing at your screens right now, eager to tell them to me. But my point here is that the message of Christianity—a world subject to sin by the disobedient acts of two lonely people, and a God full of judgment whose Son came to save us from sin—is really confusing at points, and doesn’t always resonate with peoples’ everyday experiences. Even mine. Sometimes it seems so confusing and unrelated to my life that I’m not sure I even believe it.
So there you have it. There are lots of reasons that I could become an agnostic, but those are the big six. Just to reiterate to you nervous types, I am a Christian, and I have my reasons. And they are more nuanced and thoughtful than “my parents brought me to church.” I am presently working on the best way to articulate those reasons. But I thought I’d start here.
What about you? If you were to become an agnostic, what arguments and reasons would ultimately do you in? Or if you are an agnostic or atheist, what arguments ultimately freed you from the fold? I really want to know! And an important reminder: please be respectful in your comments and questions. I don’t expect everybody to remember that, but it deserves to be said.