It’s a new year and I thought it would be appropriate to review briefly a few of the differences between my fundamental view of the world and that of my Christian friends. I am trying to maintain an open mind, but for me these are real stumbling blocks to acceptance of the basic premises of Christian faith. If anyone feels that he or she has persuasive responses, I would be most interested.
1. The Size and Age of the Universe.
Think about it. Until some 500 years ago it was rational to believe that the earth was the center of the universe. We understood that the stars were far away, but we had no idea how far. Besides, they were dim and small. We had no idea that there are in fact over 100 billion galaxies and that those galaxies average over 100 billion stars each, that our sun is simply one star among more than 10 trillion billion others in an observable universe that stretches nearly 14 billion light years (some trillion trillion miles) in every direction.
Moreover, the universe is much older than we had thought previously. As recently as a few hundred years ago, we hadn’t developed the tools to tell us how old the universe is, and most people thought it was only a few thousand years old. But we have those tools now, and the facts are unequivocal. The universe began nearly 14 billion years ago, the earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago, and life first began on earth over 3.5 billion years ago.
In scriptural times pretty much all we knew was what was happening on earth, so it was natural to think that we were important in the overall order of things. It was perhaps reasonable to think that we were the primary reason for the existence of the universe. But we know better now. We know that there is no reason to distinguish ours from any other place in the universe. We know that there are perhaps billions (yes, billions) of other stars just in our galaxy with planets that could harbor life, not to mention the billions of billions of such stars in the other galaxies in the observable universe.
Despite this advancement of knowledge, Christian dogma has persisted in claiming that humans occupy a special place in the grand scheme of the universe. Most still believe that God created the world specifically to play out the human drama of sin and redemption. But why? Why would God engineer such a vast universe over such a long period of time simply to bring about the human “experiment”? A common response is that we simply don’t/can’t know God’s ways. But that is just a cop-out in my view. Before we understood the size and age of the universe it was reasonable to assume that we occupied a special place, but now, given all we have learned about the nature of the universe, we have outgrown the notion of a human-centric world and it is time to leave it behind.
2. The Problem of Theodicy.
Growing up, I was taught the three “omni’s” regarding God’s nature: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. These imputed characteristics are (still) critical to theistic Christianity. After all, aren’t we talking about God here? But such characteristics put traditional Christianity into a box by the name of theodicy.
Briefly, why would an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving god allow pain and suffering to come into the world? Christians might argue that it was humans who brought suffering onto themselves through the fall in Eden and our sinful nature. But I’m not talking about the suffering we experience in our interactions with others—physical and psychological abuse, murder and mayhem, and war. Rather, I am referring to the “natural” sources of pain and suffering—diseases, disabilities, earthquakes, floods, windstorms, other natural disasters—tragedies brought about, not by our own actions but simply as the result of the operation of the laws of nature. Earthquakes occur because of shifts in the earth’s crust, shifts that are the direct result of the operation of the basic laws of physics. A similar analysis applies to the occurrence of, say, tornadoes. Similar statements can be regarding the heartbreak and pain resulting from the effect of genetic defects and disease. It was God, presumably, who set up those laws, and it is through their inexorable operation that we are subject to such pain and suffering. Couldn’t God have done a better job? Some might argue that there was simply no way for God to design a world that provided for freedom of choice without also including such design limitations. But isn’t that supposed to be what heaven is like—all the good without any of the bad?
3. The Salvation Story.
Then there’s the crown jewel of Christian doctrine, the promise of redemption and eternal life by reason of Christ’s death and resurrection. From before the age of five, I was taught that, because of our sinful nature, we were otherwise destined to be lost for all eternity but for Christ’s intervention and sacrifice on our behalf. And this intervention consisted of his taking on human form, living a perfect life, being crucified, and rising from the dead. These acts served to convince God to provide us the opportunity for eternal life in perfect happiness. But to seal the deal, we, in turn, have to accept the truth of Christ’s acts, acknowledge God as the one true god, and worship him.
In the environment in which I grew up, no one ever questioned the truth of this story or its logic. That was just the way it was. But in fact the story appears to make no sense. instead, it raises a host of questions:
If the problem started with the fall of man, why did God wait so long to come up with a remedy?
Why didn’t God just declare a “do-over” and decree that we could enjoy salvation by believing in him and living good lives?
How exactly did Christ’s actions, as a member of the godhead, serve to change God’s mind?
Assuming that Christ was actually God, wasn’t his resurrection a foregone conclusion?
As I view things, the salvation story was created, mostly by Paul, at a time when the offering of a blood sacrifice to one’s deity was still a common religious ritual. It was palpable evidence of faithfulness to and subordination to that deity. But while Christ’s death could be viewed as a sacrifice to God, who is offering that sacrifice? Certainly not mankind.
Christian apologists have spent centuries attempting to create a rationale for the salvation story, but if one takes a step back it simply does not make sense.
What strikes me is that there is a simpler explanation, one that actually does make sense. It is that this was the story, whether historical or not, of a charismatic leader, one of many, who was seeking to free the Jews from Roman rule. This story was converted, by Paul, from one of a failure to establish an earthly theocratic kingdom to a more universal account of the establishment of a heavenly kingdom at some future time.
Am I missing something?
© 2017 John M. Phillips