Impossible things for many christians to believe any longer

Faith deconstruction and reconstruction

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

What this page is about

Many christians these days are deconstructing their faith. Some are ending up giving up belief, others are reconstructing their faith, finding a new way to see christian faith, still others remain bewildered.

You might wonder what leads people to deconstruct? is it rebellion against God, or something more praiseworthy?

Are you wondering if you are alone in thinking similar things?

This page looks at some of the common problems people are finding with evangelical christian belief, and why they are such an issue.

Impossible to believe any more?

People give up on christian faith, or feel the need to review what they believe, for many reasons. On this page, we look at doctrines many people can no longer believe.

Evolution vs Genesis

This is probably the most obvious starting point for deconstruction for many people. The science of evolution is well established, it’s taught in most schools and reinforced in nature programs on TV. The evidence is strong, and anyway, Genesis 1-3, with a talking snake, a tree that gives knowledge of good and evil and another that gives everlasting life, reads so much like a folk tale.

Many christians can adapt their beliefs to accept this reality, but more conservative christians may have been raised in churches that oppose this modification of their traditional belief. For them, evolution can be a faith-destroying issue.

Yet it needn’t be. CS Lewis said that we should read the early chapters of Genesis as myth, used by God to reveal a truth different to scientific fact. Back 1600 years ago, Augustine said much the same.

There really is nothing to fear, and reconsideration of Genesis can lead to other insights, as we will see.

Hell

For many christians, the problems really begin with hell. It just seems so unloving, and so unjust. Could a loving God really send a person he created and loves to never-ending torment for a finite time of sin? It becomes a particular problem when a close friend or relative is an unbeliever.

I suspect many, many christians say they believe in this hell, but don’t really. How can anyone remain sane and at peace knowing the (supposed) cruel and awesomely awful fate awaiting a loved one? Or anyone for that matter. I have known christians who have said they couldn’t continue to believe in Jesus if this hellish doctrine was true.

Fortunately, we don’t have to believe it, for careful study of the Bible reveals that the doctrine of never-ending torment isn’t taught there:

  • Paul in his letters and in Acts never uses the word “hell”. Almost all the references to “hell” are by Jesus.
  • The word Jesus used referred not to a place of spiritual punishment but to a valley outside Jerusalem where rubbish was burnt. So it is a metaphorical or symbolic references, not a literal one. Flames and worms are part of this imagery.
  • When referring to hell, Jesus speaks of “destruction” or an end to life, not ongoing torment.
  • The word “eternal” doesn’t mean never-ending as many people think, but in the age to come.
  • So Jesus appears to have been warning of judgment and the possibility of an end of life in the age to come, not ongoing torment. Jews of Jesus’ day had a variety of beliefs about the afterlife, but this was probably the most common one.

So many people who can no longer accept the traditional doctrine of hell find that a more Biblical view is also more humane – we all have received the gift of life in this world, and have the opportunity to be resurrected to life in the next world as well.

(Some christians reconstruct their faith in a way that leads them to believe that God’s love wins in the end, all will eventually receive life with God, and hell is a place of refinement until each person turns to God. I find this an attractive view, but with insufficient Biblical justification.)

Genocide and killing in the Old Testament

It is hard to believe that a loving God could behave in the way depicted in parts of the Old Testament. Christians contort logic to try to justify behaviour that should never be justified.

Killing entire tribes or nations because of “detestable” practices is far from the teachings of Jesus who told us to love and forgive our enemies. Killing babies because their parents behaved badly is behaviour we would rightly condemn in an modern day despot. So how could a loving God command these things?

It is understandable that christians would look for an alternative understanding.

And fortunately there is one. The genocide was never commanded, and never carried out:

  • There are two different accounts in the book of Joshua of the Israelites entering the Promised Land, and only one of them (chapters 1-12) supports the genocidal total invasion. Chapters 13-24 describe a much slower assimilation with some fighting. It seems most likely that the second account is more accurate, and the first is idealised.
  • The archaeology supports the second account. It also suggests that the number of Israelites described in the Bible were grossly overstated, making a large-scale invasion actually impossible.
  • The preceding Old Testament books have commands corresponding to both the genocidal invasion (which apparently didn’t happen) and the gradual settlement (which apparently did). So we have good reason to doubt God gave the commands to kill.

So, consistent with viewing Genesis 1-11 as more mythical than historical, many christians are reconstructing their faith to include an Old Testament that contains folk tales, myths and legends mixed with history, especially in the earlier parts. They see no reason why God can’t reveal truth through non-historical writings.

An inerrant Bible?

There are many other anomalies in both the Old Testament and the New.

  • There are cases in both testaments where parallel accounts give different details.
  • Some OT teachings contradict or correct others
  • There are many cases where the OT prophets change or correct earlier teachings
  • The New Testament reinterprets and changes the Old

And so the doctrine that the Bible is without error has come under great scrutiny, and many christians find it an impossible doctrine to believe.

They note that the Bible nowhere claims to be inerrant, and so don’t feel compelled to accept the doctrine. They find this liberating, for they are then free to take the Bible on face value and accept it as God has given it to us, as apparently a human document (or, more accurately, as a collection of human documents) that nevertheless are used by God to reveal truth.

The Bible ceases to be a guidebook that cannot be questioned, and instead becomes a record of God’s dealings with one people group, leading up to the life of Jesus, plus a resource book which the Holy Spirit can use to teach, challenge, correct and encourage us.

This revised view of scripture also has a practical value. Christians no longer need to spend time defending the Bible from a myriad attacks. Conservative christians don’t have to pretend they accept the whole Bible when, in reality, they reinterpret or explain away many parts. Doubting christians no longer need to feel that it’s all or nothing – one admitted error and their faith is destroyed.

Almost all christians who deconstruct and reconstruct their faith come to a revised understanding of the Bible.

Sin, salvation and atonement

The idea that human sin requires some sort of sacrifice or atonement is pervasive in the Bible. It is there in the Old Testament rituals of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), sin offerings and the temple. It is still there in Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. And it is central to the teaching of Paul and the other apostles.

Nevertheless, many christians find some or all of this problematic.

  • Some find the whole idea of God needing an atoning sacrifice before he can forgive as demeaning to a God who commands us to forgive freely.
  • Others find the common explanation of the atonement, the doctrine of penal substitution, barbaric or illogical.
  • Still others accept the doctrine of the atonement as too central to scripture to be discarded, but reject what they see as an over-emphasis on God’s wrath, which seems to obliterate his loving character. They will often think that the Christus Victor explanation of the atonement, that Jesus’ death defeated sin, death and the devil, as more appealing and more scriptural than penal substitution – or equally scriptural and to be held together.

I would be closest to the third view, but all three views entail some reconstruction of our understanding of why Jesus had to die.

God’s sovereignty

The Bible presents God as being able to do anything that he chooses to do, and few christians doubt that God is sovereign. But many question exactly what that means.

There are many shades of Calvinism, but all build around the idea that humans are “dead in our sins” and so unable to do anything to save ourselves or even believe in Jesus. Fortunately, God in his grace has chosen to save some of us. And there are certainly scriptural passages that support this idea.

But the logical conclusion Calvinist doctrine draws from this has some serious difficulties:

  • It ignores or over-rides other parts of scripture that seem to show God gives us freedom to make choices that rebuff his advances (e.g. Jesus in Matthew 23:37).
  • It makes God out to be a tyrant who chooses some capriciously and not others.
  • Worse, when coupled with belief in a hell of never-ending torment, it means God created people he knew he was never going to save, and thus were inevitably going to suffer unimaginably forever – yet he still created them!.

All this seems so far removed from the Jesus we see portrayed in the gospels that many christians reject Calvinism, preferring to believe God’s love is the starting point, and the sovereign God graciously lays down his sovereignty (in some respects) to dignify people made in his image with the ability and responsibility to choose.

To change or jettison belief?

What are the options for those who find these teachings impossible to believe any longer. There seem to be three:

  1. They can give up christian faith because they see these teachings as core to christian belief, and so if they are impossible to believe, so is christianity. I know ex-christians who have taken this course. I think they are sadly mistaken, but I can understand that a fundamentalist upbringing can lead to this response.
  2. They can try to ignore the problems and hold onto christian belief without ever resolving the anomalies. I know people whose christian faith has continued like this. They remain doubting and unsettled christians, never quite disbelieving nor fully believing, a very sad and difficult place to be.
  3. They can accept that the Bible is a different book than they once thought it was, embrace the book God has given us, and reconstruct their faith on a stronger but more humble basis. That is the course I and many others are taking. And it is an adventure!

If that is you too, this section of this website provides (or will provide) information that may assist you.

References

Read more on faith deconstruction and reconstruction

Graphic: alice-in-wonderland.net.

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