This post was originally published on my personal blog, Bite-Sized Theology, on October 4, 2019.
Over the past few years I’ve taken several steps in my faith journey that led me to discover ideas about God that would’ve proven challenging at best to me a mere five years ago.
Five years ago I was at the end of my career as a vocational minister in the Evangelical megachurch, which is in itself a very strange industry. While it wasn’t the end of my journey in Evangelicalism (nor in the megachurch as I still served as a volunteer leader in the stereotypical and most widely recognized brand in the megachurch industry), leaving a full-time paying career in the church industry behind (despite still participating in it) served as a way to kickstart my growth and progression as a more intellectually honest person, at least as it relates to faith and Christian spirituality.
The first thing I shed was a need to have the answer to every spiritual question one could throw at me. And for a while I thought I did. I was lucky enough to be born into a Christian home. From the time I was 6 years old until I was 24, my family was a part of a fundamentalist Baptist church. I attended a fundamentalist grade school, middle school, and high school. In 2007 I received my bachelor degree from a fundamentalist university/Bible college.
In those 18 years immersed in fundamentalism and 5 years in career ministry, I must’ve read the Bible no fewer than 5 times cover to cover. I’ve studied the range of Evangelically approved scholars and theologians, from Augustine to John MacArthur, from D. A. Carson to N. T. Wright, from Wayne Grudem to Roger E. Olson.
I share all this not to showcase any of my accomplishments, but to provide a background for what I thought I knew. Everything I studied, everything I learned, all the reading and memorizing and searching led me further and further away from any belief in the veracity of the claims Christians made about their spiritual and/or religious heritage.
My certainty disappeared. Where once upon I time I’d find answers to spiritual questions in the pages of the Bible I had grown so intimately familiar with over the course of my life, I now found only inconsistencies. Where voices that had once offered convincing arguments for how to apply passages to life, there were now only misinterpretations and blatant ignorance of even the most rudimentary interpretive methods.
Were these scholars so blind as to miss these glaring inconsistencies? Or could it be something worse? Could they be so invested in specific agendas that they willingly ignored the flaws in their reasoning and interpretations in order to prop up a narrative that the Evangelical conclusions about God and spirituality were the only correct path to being truly Christian?
And is this sort of practice older than Evangelicalism? (Answer: yes, it is. Just look at how men like Tertullian, Chrysostom, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox spoke about women. Consider what motivated the Council of Nicaea to remove the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas from the canon. And then there’s this discovery made by Elizabeth Schrader, Ph.D. candidate of early Christianity at Duke University, that provides further legitimacy to the claim that the early church leaders were afraid of giving women authority in the church.)
So what does any of this have to do with the existence of God? Much of the Evangelical assertion that God exists finds its foundation in their adherence to faulty interpretations of Scripture. While a healthy and robust hermeneutic should lead any student of Scripture to the conclusion that the various authors of Scripture certainly believed that God existed, Evangelicals’ loyalty to the construct of inerrancy forces them to assume that God’s existence is concrete and immovable, and therefore verifiable.
Insisting on the existence of God is a shaky starting point because you’re laying a foundation for your argument on something that is fundamentally unknowable. The Bible is not inerrant (I’ll save elaborating on this for another post), therefore—however true God’s existence was to the various authors of the Bible—the continuation of their conception of God for our world and our lives today is to destroy any ability to understand what they wrote (and thus to miss out on the fullness of their understanding of the Divine) and to conceptualize God in a healthy way today.
To make matters worse, there’s this incessant need in Evangelical circles to prove the existence of God and/or the historical veracity of one of their claims, especially when met with someone who doesn’t believe. This practice is known as apologetics, and there are entire books and classes devoted to it. Some, like James White and Ravi Zacharias, have built their entire careers on this practice.
So what is this practice?
Apologetics is an attempt at defending Christianity by “proving” one or more of its tenets. It’s generally only practiced by Evangelicals to defend an Evangelical perspective. For example, an apologist might try to prove the resurrection of Jesus by pointing out the eyewitness testimony of the violent deaths of the apostles, perhaps asking the question, “Why would anyone want to die for a lie?” Another way apologists do this is by stringing together a number of improbabilities such as the likelihood of life on earth or that the distance of the sun relative to the moon could lead to the beauty of a total solar eclipse. How could this not convince you of the existence of God?
Frankly, it’s all nonsense. Atheists are right to point out that question-begging eyewitness reports, historically dubious martyrdoms, and easily explainable natural phenomena hardly prove anything. Apologetics never convinced skeptics or gnostic atheists to believe in God. The practice convinces only those who are already inclined to believe and bolsters the confidence of the fully convinced believer.
When faced with the question of “Why doesn’t God just appear and show us she exists?”, apologists insist that she does. “Just look around you! God is revealing himself through nature! You just need to have a little faith.”
Both the gnostic atheist and the Christian apologist are operating under the assumption that God is a being as asserted by Evangelicalism. I would submit that God is not this kind of being. If she were (and demanded that humans believe in her existence in order to avoid the postmortem bad place), the skeptical atheist has a really good point: this kind of God would need to reveal herself plainly, or she’s being a real dick.
The problem I have with any conversation about the existence of God is that it all boils down to assertions about something that is fundamentally unknowable. I would ask the apologist to ask themselves what is motivating this assertion that God exists. To the gnostic atheist I would ask why they can’t conceive of the possibility of a nonexistent God that nevertheless manifests in ways currently inexplicable by science (and no, I’m not referencing the “supernatural” or “spiritual”).
All of this appears inconsequential, and at some levels it is. But there are ways in which these musings have deeply practical value and implications, and in a later post I hope to explore some of these implications. For now, I think we all—believers, atheists, and everyone in between—need to get a little more comfortable with not knowing if God exists or not.