Chapter 19: Blessed are the Skeptics, and Those Who Don’t Know Where Else to Go
Once, Jesus was saying things to a crowd of his followers that were really hard to understand. I’m not sure anyone understood him. What he was saying was confusing and disturbing.
So they deserted him.
Jesus asked the very few that stayed behind: “Are you going to leave me, too?”
They hadn’t understood what what he was talking about, either, of course.
But Peter, who had a habit of bluntness, did
it again. He spoke up.
“Lord, to whom shall we go?”
As I’ve struggled with my own doubts, and frankly, my own desire to rebel against the dishonest church culture I’ve been exposed to, I’ve had to consider the alternatives. Where else do I go?
I’m not writing this chapter to convert atheists. I’m writing it to people, like me, who so struggle with what they’ve been through that they’ve contemplated walking away.
If I did walk away, maybe I’d be sending a message: I’m tired of the hypocrisy. I’m tired of the way people exploit others using Christianity as a guise. I’m tired of the way high-profile religious people keep advancing their own kingdoms at all costs.
And yet, if I don’t go to Jesus… ?
He’s the one who called people out for those very things. Jesus is the only one I know who both 1) acknowledges the reality of sin, and then 2) actually does something about it.
I find that everyone believes in “sin,” by the way, even if they don’t like to use the word. Everyone, including atheists, find some things morally repugnant and destructive. Richard Dawkins, a British scientist and perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, has a long list of things Muslims do, for instance, which he says are simply wrong.
He says it’s not a mere difference of opinion. Dawkins claims he’s right, and they’re wrong. He won’t tell us what transcendent authority there is for this, because he doesn’t think he needs one. He’s a biologist, and he knows. Thus saith him.
As a skeptic, this does not work for me. If there is no purpose for this universe, there is no purpose for any of us. That’s the cold, hard truth. We can pretend otherwise, but we remain mere specks of dust, floating on a pale blue dot, and why does it matter what those specks “think”? So one speck’s brain is telling it to be horrified by the way other specks’ brains work? Really?
As I’ve pondered walking away from God, I’ve stared into the infinite “So what?” When I see atheists like Dawkins trying to contrive moral codes they use to judge others, I’m jarred by the inconsistency.
“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference,” he wrote. 1
… and then he’s as full of “oughts” and
“should” and “ought nots” and “should nots” as any finger-waving Sunday School
Author Larry Taunton asked him directly about this. Where does he get his standards he applies to others? Dawkins’s response is… well, not satisfying:
How are we to determine who’s right? If we do not acknowledge some sort of external [standard], what is to prevent us from saying that the Muslim [extremists] aren’t right?”
“Yes, absolutely fascinating.” His response was immediate. “What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question. But whatever [defines morality], it’s not the Bible. If it was, we’d be stoning people for breaking the Sabbath.”
So Dawkins has moral expectations he expects others to observe, and while he has no idea where his authority comes from, he certainly knows it’s not from the Bible.
You’ll notice, in his writings, that for a man who does not believe in evil or good, he rather freely uses words like “evil” and “good.” Honestly, as a skeptic myself, this is why I get the distinct impression most atheists don’t really believe what they’re saying.
If I walked away from God, could I walk to this and be intellectually satisfied? I’m not sure Dawkins even believes himself.
Atheist Sam Harris, for his part, resorts to the idea that free will itself is an illusion. None of us, murderers and martyrs included, really ever chooses a thing. Yet he’s still a moralist who believes in absolutes.
“Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral – that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings. This explains why Christians like yourself expend more “moral” energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide. It explains why you are more concerned about human embryos than about the lifesaving promise of stem-cell research. And it explains why you can preach against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year.” 3
As a skeptic, I wonder why the chemicals in Harris’s brain apparently prompt him to try to induce the chemicals in my brain to make me act like something Harris’s brain matter would consider a better moral person. Good luck diagramming that last sentence.
Perhaps, if I walk away from faith, I can subscribe to the view of luminaries like Neil Degrasse Tyson or Elon Musk, who believe we’re all very likely part of a computer simulation.
I don’t find this convincing, either, for numerous reasons I won’t bore you with. I will say it’s odd, after years of being told there is no evidence for an “outside” designer, that we’re now to believe we’re all in a computer sim… that has a designer.
This seems ironic.
If I walk away from faith in God, I could tell myself, perhaps, that belief in God is really the root of humanity’s problems. It’s the reason for war. It’s the reason for oppression.
But then I’m confronted with the history of the last century, and it becomes obvious – after 100 million innocent deaths at the hands of their own atheist governments5 – that atrocities are the result of human selfishness, and we humans will use whatever means at our disposal to our own ends, be it “God” or government, or both.
We just like having a means to power and control. If religion offers power, of course selfish people will use it. Maybe this is why, as I understand it, Jesus replaced religious power structures with himself.
There was to be no gain, no glamour, no rush of power, in the church. He’s the head of the church, we’re all on one level. “Leadership” meant servant-ship, period. No power games.
But we humans will use whatever we can, and if Christianity, or anything else, can be reshaped into a spotlight, a place on stage, or power over the masses, you can expect people will reshape it.
I can blame strictly religious people for violence, but the skeptic in me sees selfishness and brutality as a pan-human problem. The skeptic in me suspects Jesus was right on this: No one is good but God.
The skeptic in me hears people say, “All paths lead to God”, but finds this wanting. It sure seems like most of them just lead right back to me.
And if there are plenty of other paths to God, there’s no reason for the cross to have been such a bloody affair at all.
So where else do I go?
Yes, I certainly see the things done with the label “Christian” that have absolutely nothing to do with Christ, like the hurts from my own pastor-led family, but does irreligion have the answer? As the west gets more “post-Christian”, are we getting happier?
We’re more affluent than ever, sure. But happy?
“As the level of wealth has doubled or tripled in the last fifty years in many industrialized nations, the levels of happiness and satisfaction with life that people report have not changed, and depression has actually become more common.” – Jonathan Haidt
I just read something remarkable about our drug problem. It’s historic: More Americans are now dying from heroin than from gun homicides. Robert Anderson with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this. Certainly not in modern times.” 7
More heroin deaths than gun homicides. That’s remarkable.
Suicides, on the other hand, have skyrocketed.
Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times, writes that the U.S. is getting less violent in “every way save one”:
As Americans commit fewer and fewer crimes against other people’s lives and property, they have become more likely to inflict fatal violence on themselves.
In the 1990s, the suicide rate dipped with the crime rate. But since 2000, it has risen, and jumped particularly sharply among the middle-aged. The suicide rate for Americans 35 to 54 increased nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010; for men in their 50s, it rose nearly 50 percent. More Americans now die of suicide than in car accidents, and gun suicides are almost twice as common as gun homicides.
No, we’re not getting happier.
We’re getting lonelier.
Again, this chapter isn’t meant as an irrefutable argument for God. (One can’t make an irrefutable argument for anything, really.) It’s just that so many of us are one-way skeptics. We find that religion “doesn’t work” without seeing the obvious: Irreligion doesn’t work, either.
For some of us, even those of us lacking emotional reward from our belief in God, it’s like we’ve taken the red pill. We’ve seen The Matrix. The world doesn’t add up.
Gerald May writes about how this happens among cultural misfits:
“Not uncommonly this dawning awareness happens intermittently over the course of a lifetime, as I have described it. But it can happen at any time. Some people even seem to have been born with it. They grow up trying to adjust themselves to the values and strivings that surround them, but somehow their hearts are never in it. They have a deep awareness that fulfillment cannot be found through acquisition and achievement. They often feel like misfits because of the different, deeper, ungraspable love they feel inside them. For them, the journey is not so much toward realization of their desire as toward being able to claim the desire they already have in a culture that neither understands nor supports it.” 9
Yes, I could walk away from Jesus, but I’m not sure who else has the words of life.
Honestly, it seems like the world is achingly lonely for him. Like we can all sense it. We know something isn’t right.
You should know something about this particular God, the God of the Bible, and it’s immediately apparent in the first words of Genesis, even if we don’t notice it.
Now, in other ancient creation stories, the universe is the result of revenge, or incest, or wars, or murderous plots. The sun, the mountains, the trees… everything is the result of some violent clash. For example, in the Enuma Elish, which is a Babylonian account of creation believed to have been written in the 12th to 18th centuries B.C., the world is made out of a lot of conflict, to put it mildly.
Briefly: There’s the freshwater god, Apsu, and Tiamat, the saltwater god. There are additional gods, and they live inside Tiamat. They make a lot of noise, which ticks off both Tiamat and Apsu. So Apsu wants to kill them.
But the most powerful god, named Ea, kills Apsu. Ea then has a son named Marduk, who’s the new greatest god. He likes to make tornadoes. This causes problems for Tiamat, who still can’t get any sleep because the gods living inside her are bothered by all the loud stuff Marduk is doing.
So Tiamat makes 11 monsters to help her do
get revenge for Apsu’s death. Other gods aren’t happy about this, so they make
Marduk their champion. He kills Tiamat.
…and then he forms the world out of her corpse.
(And this explains why you haven’t seen The Marduk and Tiamat Puppet Show.)
Anyway, in Genesis, God makes the world because He wants to, and He loves each part of it. He makes this, and it’s “good”. He makes that, and it’s “good”. The way it’s written is clearly in overt contrast with the Enuma Elish. This God is different, and He loves what He made. All of it.
The world was full of gods, but this one identifies Himself this stunning way, in Exodus 15:26: “I am the Lord who heals you.”
This God is the Healing God.
As repulsed as I might be by Christian hypocrisy, including my own, I am very attracted to a God who heals. Healing isn’t a side issue. When Jesus walked among us, it’s how he demonstrated his very identity: A lame man walks. A girl is raised from the dead.
When John the Baptist’s own faith wavered, Jesus sent people to remind him of the healings. The blind see. The deaf hear. That means the Kingdom of the Healing God is here.
I could look elsewhere, but to whom else would I go? Jesus, after all, is the God who heals little girls.
No, I do not want to walk away from this. On the contrary, I want to be part of it, doubts and questions and all.
Thankfully, scripture also reveals a God who is patient with people like me. In the book of Jude, we’re even told to be merciful to people who doubt.
So I memorized that verse. “Be merciful to those who doubt.” (Jude 1:22 NIV)
I like to memorize really short verses.
Today, I got a text about a friend/acquaintance in a high-profile, big-stage church ministry. He was just busted for having an affair. It made me nauseous, especially for both families involved.
I decided to make a quick, informal count of people I’ve personally known, in similar ministries, who’ve gone through that, and came up with 15. I’m sure I’ll think of more.
Rich Mullins once said, ““No, the church isn’t full of hypocrites. We always have room for more.”
It’s tough to take. I know we’re all moral failures, but… yikes.
But also today, I got another email at work, this one about “The Girl with the Red Feet.”
Her real name is Habeeba. She’s six.
She was born with clubfoot, which means her feet are turned inward, like a golf club. As a result, she’s never been able to walk normally. Her parents are poor, but desperately wanted her to be healed. It hurt them deeply to see the heartbreak their daughter endured, being mocked by other kids, and even adults. They were also told her disability would disqualify her from going to school.
The girl’s mom didn’t want her daughter be so ashamed. So she had an idea: She would decorated her daughter’s feet to make them beautiful. She wanted her to smile when she looked at them.
She dyed her feet in red henna, and she drew little cartoons on her feet. Anything to make Habeeba less ashamed.
Again, more heartbreak: Her mom now saw her daughter was also mocked for her red feet. She was made fun of by her own cousins, even, as “The Girl with the Red Feet”. More shame.
They found out about a surgery that would heal her, but it was costly, and with just one income – dad is a bus driver – they had no money. So they had a two-year plan: They would all skip at least one meal a day, and they would leave their own small, rented apartment, and cram in with another family in their tiny apartment. It would take two years of saving, but they could eventually afford the surgery.
The time came. They gave everything they had.
The surgery was a failure.
Everything was lost.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. The mom and dad found out about CURE’s clubfoot program, and now she’s being properly treated.
And the cost? Nothing.
She’s in a series of casts now, as her legs
are being made straight.
They’re all thrilled. They didn’t understand how it couldn’t cost anything. How could this be free? The answer is they got from the CURE staff is simple: God loves Habeeba, so God’s people do, too. They gave of themselves to make it happen.
Where else do I go?
I can’t escape the sense that there is transcendent purpose in life.
I can’t escape the sense that Habeeba objectively matters, even if the world never knew about her.
I can’t escape the sense that our very longing for things – true justice, peace, rest – is because we’re made for it. We’re really designed that way. We’re nostalgic for a place we’ve never been. We see little breakthroughs, little hints of the Kingdom, and we get goosebumps. “For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” wrote C.S. Lewis.10
I can’t walk away. I still have questions, but I still believe:
Death really is not the last word.
Love and the decision to sacrifice your own interests for others really are not reducible to mere chemical reactions.
things that seem “evil” really are
evil… and will be defeated.
There will, in the end, be justice.
There is a Lover of your very soul.
And like so many great stories which span cultures and time, there is a Good King, after all, who still wants us.
Something I’ve noticed over the years: Those who think these things are false, those who think I’m wrong…?
Deep down, they’re hoping I’m right.