On the Amazon page for a book by Hector Avalos about the "bad Jesus," an apparently sincere, and obviously thoughtful, reader posted a series of challenges to me. His name is Andy Rhodes, a former Christian who says he is open to returning to Christianity, if his questions can be answered. I will not pretend that I can answer them all to Andy's satisfaction or even, in some cases, to my own. But frankly, it is not every day that I come across skeptics whose challenges are this strong and internally coherent. So I'd like to give his arguments a shot. (He gave me permission to post them here and reply, not that I always ask.)
Andy's first post (of six in this bunch) is about the "Problem of Pain" or divine hiddenness, along with the Christian record. I've been known to duck and run from this former problem, but let's give it a bit of a shot now.
I'll respond to Andy's comments one paragraph or so at a time.
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"My intention is not to have a nasty and antagonistic fight with you. I'm simply trying to understand these issues and express my frustration with what I consider to be quite insufficient answers that Christianity offers to explain and address life's problems and confusions.
"There's a lot to respond to in what you've written, but I think the best place to start is the natural world. When one talks about a compassionate and loving God, evidence must be provided for this and it must be encountered in the context of a brutal cosmos and Earth, largely inhospitable to humans and other animals. We suffer from disease, famine, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.........all intricately designed by God. The universe is built on a structure of life-death and destruction-creation processes within a very impersonal and callous mechanism. The average human lifespan was 40 years or less before the 20th century, infant mortality rates were extremely high and most people suffered tremendously for much of the years they lived."
I will try to answer your questions. But let me note from the start that doing so puts me in a somewhat false position. I do not believe in Christianity because it has answered all the mysteries of life for me. I believe in it because I think there is a great deal of powerful evidence in its favor, and because it sheds light on many mysteries.
I don't expect to be able to understand everything. Job didn't get all his questions answered, either. Any universe that is completely explicable to human beings, has probably been invented by them.
But I do believe there is strong evidence for the essential truths of Christianity -- the reality of God, His purpose in life, His work in history, prophesy, the divine nature of Jesus and transcendent goodness of his teachings, and his death for our sins and resurrection. I think miracles happen, and have met numerous apparently honest people to whom they have happened. And I think, and have argued, that truth within many great traditions turns the minds of those who seek God to Jesus Christ.
C. S. Lewis granted (for instance, at the beginning of Problem of Pain) almost all of your a priori argument against Christianity in these two paragraphs, and so do I.
I don't think the cosmos is "brutal," if you mean cruel, however. That's overly anthropomorphic. We live on this planet, and despite all the diseases and pests, its surface and atmosphere are fecund, beautiful, and full of life-giving provisions. That there is no warm soil to plant carrots on Pluto is no concern of mine: God never promised me Pluto. That doesn't make an icy world "brutal:" my own children's first instinct was to find the planets fascinating, and I still do.
God didn't design famine, in my opinion. What strikes me in reading ancient authors like Herodotus and Polybius, is how hard humanity has to work to make itself miserable. Their historical works seem like an unending chronicle of wars, betrayals, and slavery. Obviously there was more than enough food to go around: famine in most of the inhabited world requires concerted action by selfish people to create.
Suffering is undeniable. Infant mortality is horrifying. (Apparently more so to Christians, who find even abortions heartbreaking.) But it is striking that countries where suffering is greatest, tend to have the most believers. It is in affluent countries where atheism grows rapidly.
Why does God allow little children to die in such huge numbers? Even at the hands of a Hitler, or of a cancer? That is, indeed, the hardest question for a Christian to answer, especially one like myself, who agrees with you that death and disease occurred before human beings arrived on this planet. It is not so easy to just say, "Eve ate the apple, that's why" -- if it ever was. A lot of people found that one puzzling, anyway. An apple? Auschwitz? A little disproportionate, maybe?
But we don't see the end of things. I think of a shaman in South America who said he saw God take the spirits of children away. If there is an eternity, all that we see that is horrifying, will pass, and a greater dawn will break that will put the Holocaust to shame as a taudry little episode in light of the glory of eternity.
And not all on this earth is horrifying, either. I watch animals, and simply do not see that birds in the trees are miserable, or seals following flounders, or our dog chasing squirrels to the trees. (Nor that the squirrels are unhappy, or worry about their short lives).
A child gets sick. I got sick as a child, many times. In each case, I recovered. Those incidents do not hurt me now: they are assimilated into my accepted and welcome past. If Christianity is true, then for children who get that fever, or start vomitting, as I did, and then fall asleep -- I believe it will be the same for them. I don't think they'll feel their lives were horrible, because they passed through an unpleasant door on the road to paradise. I do not think they will feel the need to mourn: I guess they will laugh at death.
"If there was a literal Adam and Eve, which seems impossible given the genetic science available today, their levels of obedience or sin could not significantly improve or diminish the level of death, suffering and predation intrinsic to nature. The idea that any amount of hope or love in the Bible could make up for this horrific context must be partial or complete wishful thinking and all this makes it even less likely that an afterlife could be consistently safe for anyone - it just doesn't jive with the world made by God the first time. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has remarked that only 2 percent of the Earth's human population existed before Christ and so that's not as potentially negligent as God choosing to not reveal Himself in a salvific way to the human race for 100,000 years. Yet, if the estimates of total historical world population that I've seen in professional academic studies are correct, in that approximately 100 billion people have ever lived, then 2 billion people languished without revelatory assistance from God. That's still a very large number: 2 billion people."
I would question your assumption, here. I think people around the world, including before the time of Christ, have enjoyed revelation from God. And the Bible says that, too. See my last book, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test, for a number of examples.
I believe that even if the story of Adam and Eve is meant as poetry or "myth," the first chapters of Genesis are among the most powerful and true pieces of writing in human literature. Truth can be carried symbolically, and the amount of truth crammed into those few chapters is so great, I am inclined to see that itself as an argument for divine revelation -- the nature of men and women, our propensity to name and classify, our isolation and anxiety, the "Blame Game," the order of creation, the "fall" from a subsistence, family-oriented lifestyle to "civilization" that in its early stages brought so much misery and oppression -- just a few of the copious insights that these chapters reveal.
But I also have no trouble imagining God calling a couple out from the crowd of early man and giving them special environmental responsibilities and awareness of Him. Wilhelm Grimm and Win Corduan show that primitive peoples often were very aware of God, and often did have strong moral feelings. Some of Genesis has, in my view, been verified scientifically. Read In the Beginning, God, for instance.
"God waited from 100,000-300,000 BCE until about 3,000 BCE to begin sharing anything substantial about himself/herself and this information was very slow to reach the rest of humanity, especially when one considers how many moral contradictions are contained in the Bible's teachings that prevented even remotely humanistic values to be understood consistently. Only during the past two hundred years has the Christian world begun to fundamentally shed the atrocious aspects of large parts of biblical faith, such as slavery, misogyny, seasonal/colonial warfare and theocracy - and this was largely because they were forced to do so by a increasingly humanistic worldview in Western society."
Some of this is simply false, a product (in my view) of Enlightenment propaganda. I have demonstrated on this site that in fact, Christianity has long been at the forefront of improving conditions for slaves and of liberating them.
And who says God did not speak to human beings during our first hundred millennia or so? Genesis suggests that He did. So do the stories of Abraham, Melchizadek, and Job. So does anthropological data from around the world, as accumulated by Andrew Lang, Schmidt, James Legge, Don Richardson, Win Corduan, John Mbiti, and myself, among others.
Jesus' love was understood from the beginning, which is why Paul's love poem appears in I Corinthians, one of the most beautiful set of verses ever written. It is also why Will Durant and Rodney Stark describe the amazing reforms the Gospel worked within Greco-Roman culture from the earliest years. The idea that Christians waited for the Enlightenment (a bump on the rear of Christendom which turned malignant at times) is simply ridiculous, though I know that is a popular myth, and don't blame you for buying into it.
The Enlightenment was influenced by the Gospel, though not enough. Christianity had been reforming the world for centuries before it began.
Jesus owned no slaves. His teaching was fundamentally inconsistent with treating a fellow human being as property. Though he did not vocally oppose slavery, so far as we know, the logic of the Gospel, "There is now neither slave nor free," "Love your neighbor as yourself," changed history, and changed it dramatically -- though not instantly.
Do you have any evidence that warfare was more severe in Christendom than anywhere outside it? Read Polybius and other ancient historians. It was endless and often cruel, though there were rules of war. Enslaving defeated foes was almost always de rigeur, though burning down temples was considered immoral.
Neither is theocracy taught or exemplified by Jesus, who held no political power. Historian Donald Treadgold argues that Israel was the only free state in the region. Berman's Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought is must-reading on the liberating character of the Torah. And sociologist Robert Woodberry has shown that Protestant missions were a vital influence in the development of free institutions around the world.
Again, when it comes to misogeny, my series on "How Jesus Liberates Women" on this site decimates the conventional assumptions. I show that in fact, Christianity has liberated BILLIONS of women around the world. And that began with Jesus, not with any "Enlightenment." (As I noted already in Jesus and the Religions of Man, 2000, leaders of the Enlightenment were themselves often abusive towards women, as are many supporters of "abortion rights" today. Bill Clinton was not an outlier, just a normal liar.)
So I think your assumptions are not just wrong, they are the opposite of the truth. Hundreds of comments have challenged my arguments on women, without denting them, because Jesus really has made the world a better place for women.
"Surely, there were many sincere "seekers" in that incredibly long amount of time, but the message they may have heard could have repelled them - for very good and humane reasons. Meanwhile, people suffered not merely from ignorance about God's supposedly primary character attributes (love, justice, holiness, power), but also regarding the causes and solutions to disease, brutality, famine, poverty, social/ethnic/gender inequality, etc. How can this be fairly explained?"
Well, if people rejected the Gospel for "good and humane reasons," God knows that. I don't believe He will condemn anyone for the good that they do. But a lot of people fool themselves about the facts, and anti-Christian lies have become a growth industry in West and East -- I am constantly battling old canards that have been proven false decades ago, including many above. But you don't know that such old canards are false, because the lies are so popular.
"I don't see what reason there is to thank God for salvation from this condition that we are born into, that God designed."
Then thank God for the sunrise. Or for the amusing peal of a banana. Or for Shakespeare. Or for the loves of your life.
Gratitude makes us mentally healthy. And there is plenty of cause to give thanks. My parents have taught me that, in their declining years.
"The weakness and frailty of human moral character, emotional intelligence and general smarts are so generally consistent and universal that it makes no sense to blame this on human beings. The Bible teaches that we deserve everlasting torment (with or without fire, depending on ones' interpretation) for not being able to overcome the toxin of human sinful nature, even though we did nothing to invite it."
We did nothing? Can I not be kinder to someone tomorrow, than I was yesterday? Can I not make someone's day better? Can I not teach a song, help a child enjoy Christmas, listen to someone in sorrow?
Let us attend to what we know, not to places we have not been, in this world or the next, and people we have not met. Let us base our choices on known facts.
I think we do choose. And I think the Bible is heroic, and calls us to heroism, which is better than blaming fate or pretending we are mere machines manipulated by selfish genes. Isn't it better to be called to be gods? If we fail, or refuse to try, or to ask God's help -- I don't know what happens then. But I think it is good that we are called to try, and warned against the devils inside of us. "Repentance" is a glorious word, and it seems to correspond to something in the real world.
"Adam and Eve, or whoever the first humans were, could not have imagined that all humans would suffer awfully outside the Garden and in Hell because of just one rebellious act on their part. These kinds of examples serve to illustrate the incredibly disproportionate punishment system in the Scripture. God is perfect and incapable of sin. We are full of sin. Therefore, the consequence we deserve is infinite. Even for just a finite lifetime, with so much confusing and contradictory information to block revelatory clarity, with so little of human history being attracted, intuited or dominated by a monotheistic view of God (out of thousands of mythologies and religions, only the Jews and Zoroastrians) - even though Romans 1 says that it's obvious in nature."
But you're wrong about that. Awareness of God -- I refer you again to Lang, Schmidt, Corduan, and my own Jesus and the Religions of God -- is common, around the world, on every continent. Even the Greeks and Romans were beginning to recognize God, one reason Christianity caught on so quickly.
As for heaven and hell, again, I have not been to either place. I like C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, but he hadn't been there, either. I judge by what I have seen, especially in the Gospels. And going by that, I have reason to believe that God is just, and that eternity will not prove the moral horror that you think the Bible describes.
I can only think of one place in the gospels where anyone turns to God in humility and pleas for help, and is turned away in the end -- and that was not a criminal on a cross, but a character in a parable.