Interactive Gospel
- Objections to Belief -
by Paul Hazelden


Summary

People raise many objections to the Christian faith. I have tried to build answers to most of the most common questions into the Interactive Gospel pages. However, these questions don't seem to entirely fit in those pages, so they are being addressed here.

1.   The system is not fair
2.   I would like to believe, but I have no faith
3.   Science is the only way
4.   You can make the Bible say anything
5.   Only weak people need to rely on faith in God
6.   I can blame God for everything
7.   Objections That Aren't

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1.   The system is not fair

"Is someone who doesn't believe in God and lives their life never hurting other people better or worse than a Christian who commits a serious crime against another but asks for forgiveness?
 
"I've had this debate with a christian and apparently the atheist is still damned to hell. And the christian gets heaven.
 
"It's one of my main problems with god."

I'm not surprised you have problems with this. I have problems with it, and so do all the active, thinking Christians I know. I mentioned it to a friend who has been working as a missionary for nearly 20 years, and his response was: "I don't believe in a God like that, either."

The problem comes when you see Heaven as a reward.

Most people think of Heaven as a reward for being good. If you are nice to others down here, you get to enjoy the nice stuff when you die. Christians often talk as if Heaven is a reward for having this thing called 'faith'. It's not a helpful approach.

Heaven is not a reward: it is a place. More specifically, it is the place where God is. The basic principle is that you get what you want: if you want to be with God, you get to be with God. If not, you also get what you want: to be in a place without God.

The Bible (actually, the New Testament - the second part of the Bible) talks a lot about rewards in the next world for the way you live in this one. If you do what God wants - if you love people, treat them with dignity and respect, listen to them and respond to them in appropriate ways - then you will be rewarded. It's not entirely clear if the reward is anything more than the benefits you get from growing as a human being by acting in this sort of way, but who cares?

On the other hand, if you don't care for other people, you don't get the reward. If you live a bad life, and right at the end you decide you want to be with God after all, then yes: you get to Heaven, as you wish. But you end up there empty-handed - you had a life, and you wasted it. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians chapter 3.

It's not about whether you 'believe in God'. Belief isn't something you have or don't have: it is always something you have a bit of, about something in particular. You don't believe in that sort of God. Good - neither do I.

I'm saying it is about wanting to be with God. The Bible talks about this in various ways. It talks about being part of God's family, being accepted, being set free, being made a whole person, and so on. They are all pictures, images, trying to put into words something that cannot be put into words. They are all about a relationship with God, and you cannot fully capture what any relationship means to you, or what it involves.

The basic question is: do you want to be with Him? To put it slightly differently, whose side are you on? If you are not certain that He exists (and, to be quite honest, that is the experience of most believers for much of the time) - then, IF He exists, would you want to be with Him?

And this raises what, for many of us, is the 'real' question: if God exists, what is He/She/It like? For Christians, the basic points are:

  1. God is loving and holy (so He really wants the very best for you, and He really hates injustice, intolerance, and all that sort of thing); and
  2. if you want to see what God is like, go and look at Jesus.

So - to answer your question. The person who loves and helps other people all his life is a better person than one who is selfish and hurts other people all the time. But both of them get what they want: to be with God, or to be without Him.

On a personal note: I am very sceptical of the whole 'deathbed conversion' thing. I think it is very unlikely that someone who has lived a life constantly fighting God, rejecting His principles and hurting other people - it is very unlikely that such a person will suddenly decide that they want to be with this Holy God for all eternity. And I don't believe that saying the words 'I believe' on your deathbed will make the slightest difference to either your destination or your reward.

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2.   I would like to believe, but I have no faith

There are a lot of strange ideas about faith and belief, especially when you look at religious or spiritual issues.

People sometimes say to me things like, "I wish I had your faith!" or "I have tried to believe, but I can't stop doubting." Whatever they mean by these words, it is not what I mean when I talk about faith in Jesus.

Firstly, doubts are okay. Any time you are aware of exercising faith, you will probably be aware of your doubts, too. It is the doubts that make it faith and not knowledge, although the line beween the two is a very blurred one.

Secondly, everybody has faith. When you get on the bus or train in the morning, you have faith that the driver will take you where you expect to go; when you get married, you have faith that together with your partner you will be able to build a life you want; you have faith when you go to work that your boss will pay you at the end of the month; you have faith when you sow seeds that they will blossom in the Spring. Every part of your life requires faith.

Thirdly, everybody has a religious faith. However you live, you are demonstrating some kind of religious faith. Not going to church and not praying is just as much an exercise of faith as going and praying. Perhaps more so! We have an idea what proof of the existence of God might look like, but there is nothing you could possibly point to as proof of the non-existence of God. This has nothing to do with the nature of God: it works exactly the same way if you talk about the existence or non-existence of my brother or sister.

Finally, what actually matters is the deeper question: what is it you may have faith in? The question is not, do you believe in God, but what kind of God do you believe might exist?

There is a wonderful passage in Catch 22 where Yossarian is debating the non-existence of God with (I think) the Major's wife. She gets very upset. He says, but you don't believe in God, either! She replies that the God she doesn't believe in is good and just and loving, while the God he doesn't believe in is horrible and cruel. Of course, the question for the reader is: which position makes more sense? Yossarian's. Whether or not there is a God corresponding to what they each don't believe in - that is quite a different matter.

There is no one thing called 'God' that you either have total faith in or not. There are many different and conflicting ideas about God, and we each have differing levels of belief in each of them - and those levels of belief change with our feelings and as we grow in knowledge and experience.

The God I believe in today is significantly different from the God I believed in when I was fourteen years old. This is not to suggest that God has changed, but to admit that I have.

To those who say they don't believe in God, I ask you to consider the nature of the God you don't believe in. You may well discover that most Christians don't believe in such a God, either!

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3.   Science is the only way

"Science is the only tool which offers any hope of answering questions, large and puzzling or otherwwise..." (New Scientist, 28 October 2006, page 26)

Science is great for asking some questions. If you want to know how to build a tower without it falling down, or where a cannonball will land, then science is the way to go.

On the other hand, if you have questions about the meaning of life, what values you should live by, or whether your parter loves you, science has very little to offer you. Science cannot give you the answers you look for, and the answers you find cannot be proven. You can ask questions, examine the evidence all you like, but sooner or later you just have to act in faith.

Some people do a strange trick. They define a set of questions as the 'real' questions, or the 'only questions worth asking' or something similar. And then they show that only science can answer those questions. Great.

But in the real world, people want to know what to do with their life, whether to make lots of money or spend their time trying to help the less fortunate. Should I take this job? Should we get married? Should I have an abortion? It seems to me that these are the real questions, the big questions in most peoples lives, and science has absolutely nothing to say about any of them.

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4.   You can make the Bible say anything

"You can make the Bible say anything you like. You are just using God and the Bible as an excuse for believing what you want to believe anyway."

Okay, let's be honest: this is exactly what some people do.

If you look hard enough, you can find pretty much any idea in the Bible. So, whatever you want to believe, you can find something in the Bible to support that belief.

But it is also the case that many people have found the traditional description of the Bible as 'the Word of God' is frighteningly true: God speaks to us through the Bible. But we have to listen.

One key question is whether you want to understand what God is saying, or whether you simply want to have your own opinions confirmed. Either way, you can use the Bible to get what you want.

Many things in the Bible are just not clear. The Bible is full of stories which have to be interpreted. It talks about principles which have to be applied, but fails to explain how to apply them in a different context and culture.

The Bible, you see, is not a rule book. It just doesn't work that way. Even when it gives rules, they are always given in a specific histolic and cultural context. We are told to 'love your neighbour' - but what it means to love your neighbour differs from place to place.

The Bible is written by many different people, with different interests, characters, concerns, priorities and personalities. The four Gospels all tell the story of Jesus, but each in a unique way. The Bible does not present us with one, right, definitive story: it presents us with several viewpoints and asks us to interpret what they say.

Even when there is only one story given, it is often not clear what is going on. At the start of Acts, the Apostles elect Matthias to replace Judas as one of the twelve. And then he is never heard from again. Was this a mistake? Should they have waited (as some people believe) for Paul to get converted and take his place as an Apostle? You can interpret the story either way. You can find such ambiguities all over the Bible.

But this does not mean that you can 'make' the Bible say anything you want. Some things are ambiguous, but other bits are crystal clear: God loves you and wants the best for you. Love your enemy.

If you choose to take things out of context, then you can 'prove' anything from the Bible. But if you take the context seriously, then the important things are very clear. And, really, that is all we need.

(Added 14 May 2011.)

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5.   Only weak people need to rely on faith in God

"I don't need an imaginary friend to enable me to cope with life."

Many people see belief in God as a crutch - something that weak people need, but which you should discard when you grow strong enough to stand on your own two feet.

But nobody actually stands alone. We need other people. And, if we can admit we need other people, why not admit that we might also need God?

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6.   I can blame God for everything

"It would be great if there was a God: I could blame him for all my problems, rather than taking responsibility for my problems and responsibilty for my own actions."

Why do people assume that if there is a God, they will be able to blame Him for everything?

We are talking about one of the oldest and deepest problems in philosophy and theology, and we are not going to solve it in a couple of paragraphs.

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7.   Objections That Aren't

I've been trying to think of a better title for this, but failed. Suggestions, please ...

I am presented with a lot of 'objections' which completely fail to say anything, but still 'demand' to be answered. I don't have the time or patience to answer all of them, but I would like to say enough to help people recognise the ploy and be able to respond helpfully to it.

These objections frequently follow a standard structure.

  1. There is an initial scene-setting statement. It is generally something fairly obvious, which almost anyone would agree with; occasionally, it describes a recent discovery or a news item.
  2. There is then a section describing the evidence for this statement. Sometimes it is quite short; sometimes it can be almost a whole chapter in a book. This is generally well written and informative.
  3. This is followed by a conclusion which bears no relationship to the evidence, and often only a passing connection with the initial statement. It is implied that all the facts, figures and evidence you have just been presented with, they all point inevitably to this conclusion. But they don't.

Most of the time, these objections are not actually intended to convince anyone of anything: they are intended to reassure the readers that their beliefs and prejudices are right, not to communicate with anyone who thinks differently.

Of course, Christians play this trick as often as anyone. You can send me as many examples as you like of Christians arguing in this way, it won't make a difference. A bad argument is still a bad argument, whoever makes it.

The most recent example of this I came across was in the External link - LA Times LA Times.

Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past.
For example, we are born with a powerful need for attachment, identified as long ago as the 1940s by psychiatrist John Bowlby and expanded on by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Individual survival was enhanced by protectors, beginning with our mothers. Attachment is reinforced physiologically through brain chemistry, and we evolved and retain neural networks completely dedicated to it. We easily expand that inborn need for protectors to authority figures of any sort, including religious leaders and, more saliently, gods. God becomes a super parent, able to protect us and care for us even when our more corporeal support systems disappear, through death or distance.

The breakdown is fairly obvious. The first paragraph sets the scene. It is not really attempting to argue anything

  1. we are born with a powerful need for attachment, (Who can argue with this?)
  2. identified as long ago as the 1940s by psychiatrist John Bowlby and expanded on by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Individual survival was enhanced by protectors, beginning with our mothers. Attachment is reinforced physiologically through brain chemistry, and we evolved and retain neural networks completely dedicated to it. (Lots of fact and figures - more than we actually need. Are we really being told that nobody noticed that human beings find attachment important before the 1940s? Of course not. But it is possible that no scientific paper was written on the subject before then. So, by implication, it seems that scientific papers are the only kind of knowledge which counts.)
  3. We easily expand that inborn need for protectors to authority figures of any sort (Okay, this sounds plausible - but is there anything in the facts and figures quoted above which supports this idea? Not a word.), including religious leaders (So, there is a lot of evidence that we are atached to our mothers, and this somehow explains why we get attached to religious leaders. And, in any case - do we? I don't think I know anyone who is or was attached to a religious leader. Not saying it doesn't happen, but I really don't think it is that common.) and, more saliently, gods. (Brilliant. We get attached to our mother, who feeds and cares for us, and this somehow explains why - in the author's terms - we invent an imaginary figure, pretend that this figure somehow does things for us, and the get attached to him/her/it. Sorry - what is the connection here?) God becomes a super parent (How? Why? Anything in the quoted research to explain this? Thought not.), able to protect us and care for us even when our more corporeal support systems disappear, through death or distance. (Again, what in the evidence helps us to understand why we would invent a figure and then believe that this figure is able to protect us and care for us? The evidence is all about getting attached to a real person who has cared for us - how does this explain getting attached to an imaginary person who has not? In a word - it doesn't.)

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Copyright © 2011 Paul Hazelden
 
http://hazelden.org.uk/ig/ig_objections.htm was last updated 13 November 2011
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