Christianity Gets Slam-Dunked

A review of Tim Sledge’s Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer
The Richard Dawkins 7-point scale, for rating the strength of belief or non-belief, has been widely referenced. Number 1 is Strong Theist, “I do not question the existence of God. I know he exists.” Number 7 is Strong Atheist, “I am 100% sure there is no God.” This is a useful guide, far more than many atheists realize. I am sometimes scolded by other atheists for ‘wasting my time’ debunking Christianity. “They never listen,” so I’m told. But note that Number 3 on the Dawkins Scale is Weak Theist, “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”

I’ve long maintained that Christians exist on a scale of 1 to 10, although I’ve never bothered to define each of the numbers, other than to say that the 10s are probably unreachable; these are the evangelicals and fundamentalists. Good luck trying to penetrate. But then there are the 5s, those who go through the motions out of habit, show up at church, but who have unvoiced doubts. They have noticed things that don’t make sense, and are skeptical of Preacher Answers. Just one book, just one article—about a big flaw in the faith—coming to their attention, somehow, can start the process of walking away.

So I always welcome books that expose the flaws, especially one that is as highly readable as Tim Sledge’s short new book (120 pages), Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief. With ease and precision, Sledge focuses on just four realities that do indeed shatter the Christian spell.

Speaking of shattering the spell. Three episodes in my series of Flash Podcasts (under 5 minutes each), Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, are now available: Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3.

And there is precious irony here. Sledge was not a Number 5 Christian; for thirty years he was an evangelical Southern Baptist minister, a Number 10 Christian. In his longer book, Goodbye Jesus: An Evangelical Preacher’s Journey Beyond Faith [my review is here], Sledge mentions his practice over the years of relegating his reservations—things about the faith that didn’t make sense—to a corner of his mind that he labeled, Exceptions to the Rule of Faith. Eventually the items deposited there became too weighty.

In his new book he distills many of these into four knockout categories, hence the title, Four Disturbing Questions:

(1) The Power Failure Question
(2) The Mixed Message Question
(3) The Germ Warfare Question
(4) The Better Plan Question

This is the Power Failure Question:

“Why does faith in the resurrected, empowering Jesus generate such inconsistent results?” (p. 17)

You’d think that being ‘born again’ would produce exemplary human beings. It seems people experience emotional highs about this status in Christ, but…

“Take a group of these born-again, new creations in Christ—to whom God is giving directions and guidance for day-to-day life—put them in a church and wait. Eventually, some of them will get into a disagreement about something. Sometimes they work it out, but often, no matter how much prayer takes place, one group gets angry and leaves, often to start a new congregation. Wait a little longer, and the process will repeat—over and over—and that’s one reason we have not only thousands of churches, but thousands of Christian denominations.” (p. 16)

Sledge observed zealous Christians up close, as an insider, for a long time, and that alone was a corrosive factor. When he was a youth pastor for a church in Memphis, he saw how little impact the ‘power of Jesus’ actually had:

“…I watched the deacons in the inner-city church I served respond to a threatened protest by the NAACP. The church had refused to admit an African American girl to its weekday preschool. In the deacons meeting, there was no discussion of the preschool’s admissions policy. There was no conversation about Jesus’s teaching on loving and accepting all people. No one pulled out a Bible for guidance that day. The response of the deacons—the most respected lay leaders in our church—was driven by long-standing racial prejudice ingrained in Southern culture.” (p. 12)

Jesus didn’t stand a chance.

Yes, the power failure: Jesus getting the job done, transforming people—well, the impact isn’t what you’d expect, or as Sledge puts it, “such inconsistent results.” About as much as we would expect from fervent devotion to any other religion or group: “…I saw a bell curve of outstanding, average, and not-so-great people not dramatically different from the pattern of any human organization.” (p. 17)

This is the Mixed Message Question:

“How could a loving God who created a universe do such a poor job at clearly revealing who he is and what he expects?” (p. 33)

So much has been written about the utter failure of the Bible to qualify as the Word of God, but Sledge provides a terrific, succinct presentation of the major deficiencies of the Bible in this 13-page chapter of his book.

“Have you ever met anyone who told you they started reading the Bible and couldn’t put it down? I’m guessing you haven’t, and the reason is that the Bible is hard to read, difficult to understand, and filled with contractions.” (p. 26)

“…there are countless areas where even Christian theologians cannot agree on what the Bible has to say.” (p. 26) And he offers a list of 25 items… “this is only a short list.” Of course, theologians and ardent apologists can’t help themselves, inventing schemes for rescuing the Bible.

“It is a task of separating what is no longer true from what is timeless, and this is a chore that must be undertaken over and over.
“It’s an Edward Scissorhands approach to the Bible: Cut, cut, cut until you have something presentable. Certain teachings are deemed ‘no longer relevant,’ ‘not cross-cultural capable,’ or ‘metaphorical’ leaving the holy book with fewer and fewer passages that are viewed as authoritative. This is a slow form of death for faith.” (pp. 31-32)

“Each round of reinterpreting is one more step down a staircase to cast aside what was an item of required belief but now is deemed theological rubbish. What lies down the steps is a basement with nothing in it.” (p. 32)

This is the Germ Warfare Question:

“Why didn’t Jesus say anything about germs.” (p. 46)

We may wonder: Just when did Jesus become a full participant in the Holy Trinity, i.e., knowing everything that God knows? John’s gospel tells us that Jesus was present right there at creation. It’s bit difficult to reconcile this with a Galilean peasant preacher who could very well have been illiterate. But if John got it right, why not use his time on earth to pass along really useful knowledge?

Sledge provides a helpful survey of discoveries about microbes in the 19th and 20th centuries, after billions of humans had suffered horrible deaths from disease. Yet we have a thousand pages of Bible that gives no information at all about how the real world works. “But it’s hard to argue,” Sledge says, “that any time was too soon for humans to learn about the microscopic organisms that cause so much sickness and death—germs.” (p. 35)

Yet Jesus the moralist was more concerned about sin. “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (Mark 7:15). Sledge is generous, but gets in his zinger: “…Jesus was focused on the importance of inner spiritual change over outward religious ceremony. But wouldn’t this have been a great time to explain that they should wash their hands for health purposes, a good time to tell people about germs, a good time to talk about why they should be careful where they get their drinking water, along with a few tips about sewage disposal?” (p. 42)

“Why didn’t the God of the universe—walking among mankind in the flesh as Jesus—do a sidebar talk on germs?” (p. 43)

“God had been watching silently for thousands of years by the time Jesus came along. It was late in the game, but couldn’t the Son of God—the one described as the Great Physician—have made a greater contribution to human health than healing a few people while he was on earth?” (p. 46)

Horrendous suffering—both human and animal—is built in; it’s just how the world works. Any theism that posits a caring, Master-Craftsman god, collapses on that fact alone, and this Sledge chapter is a good primer for those who rarely consider the implication of germs for their concept of a good God.

This is the Better Plan Question:

“Why would a heavenly father condemn most of his children to eternal torment when he could send them all straight to heaven?” (p. 70)

Christianity as believed today by many is a milk-toast version of New Testament Christianity. The gospel writers created chilling Jesus script about hell, and the apostle Paul was sure that God’s default emotion is wrath. And the New Testament had a plan of escape: Jesus as a human sacrifice to atone for our sins, culminating in his resurrection.

But nothing at all about this makes sense!

Sledge identifies the strategy the church has used for getting around this: “The plan of salvation is easier to digest when you hear it for the first time as a child—a time before critical thinking when you are compliant and always believe what your parents and teachers tell you…by the time you’re old enough to think critically, the ‘plan’ is so ingrained in your thinking that it’s extremely difficult to step back and look at it objectively.” (p. 51)

Believers would do well to examine the resurrection stories up close. Sledge provides 17 bullet points (pp. 60-62) that expose the flaws in the accounts. Of course, Jesus coming back to life went unnoticed beyond his circle the cult followers. “…such an event—recorded in secular history—would have provided us with more convincing historical evidence that Jesus did rise from death. Better still, the resurrected Jesus could have gone on a Worldwide Resurrection Tour with stops in China and every city, town, and village in the world.” (p. 63)

Without that world tour, and with ‘scripture’ that fails to make a convincing case (except to those in the cult), most of humanity—by the New Testament’s own reckoning—will end up in hell. Isn’t that a major defect in creation?

As Sledge states the case, “…a safe estimate is that three out of four of the 108 billion individuals who have lived thus far will end up suffering for eternity in hell.” How could this “…be part of any plan conceived by a loving God? And how could an all-knowing God not realize ahead of time that this result would be inevitable?” (p. 66)

The spell is broken, as Sledge sums up: “God’s plan for salvation as described in the Bible and interpreted by most Christians just doesn’t add up. When you really think about this whole scheme, it sounds like divine nonsense.” (p. 70)

Christian apologists recoil, resist, rebound. Their talent for insane invention to overcome these objections shows no limits. Most of the folks in the pews don’t probe enough to grasp the problems. Some do, of course, and walk away, disgusted by the pretense and pretend.

All of the Disturbing Questions vanish in the face of Sledge’s One Simple Answer, which is:

“Christianity—and all other religions—are the creations of human minds and there is no all-powerful, all-knowing, personal, loving God.” (p. 89)

When contrived theology is eliminated, we don’t have to agonize about the disturbing questions. For millennia, priest and preachers have been speculating about God, making guesses, professing certainties about the Profound Mystery of God—this is their most cherished dodge. Well yes, if God doesn’t exist and you’re doing your darndest to ‘figure him out,’ of course ‘mystery’ is a good cover for having nothing to figure. The fact that these ecclesiastical bureaucrats disagree vehemently and often violently about God is a clue that they’re actually clueless.

“Lets move from silly to reality,” is Sledge’s plea. “There is no big plan for everyone. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Everything happens for a zillion reasons—one reason connecting with another and another with multiple groupings intersecting at a point in time to push or pull in this or that direction.” (p. 86)

But it’s not easy: “My theory is that a believer can’t be objective until there’s some bruising collision with reality that is emotionally jarring, something that loosens up the thought process.” (p. 105)

Sledge’s Chapter 6, “The Way Faith Works,” is a nine-page parable about prayer. I wonder, could it be turned into a pamphlet and handed out at churches across the land?

In my own critique of prayer, I urge people to ponder (1) how it could work: by what mechanism can thoughts escape human skulls to reach a Supreme Being supposedly ‘outside time and space’? and (2) why God needs to be reminded—and coaxed—to do anything, given that he sees all and knows all. John Wathey (The Illusion of God’s Presence) has said, “Prayer is the adult manifestation of infantile crying.”

But Sledge’s parable takes readers through the prayer process. He describes an electronic gadget, a $99 Amazing Disk, which comes with a AAA battery and 1,156-page user’s manual. This is a high impact story about how people get suckered into belief systems that fail to deliver. Ridiculous ideas deserve to be ridiculed, and prayer is no exception.

When Number 10 Christians find out that another Number 10—especially a Premium Number 10 like Tim Sledge—has left the faith, we see rage and alarm: “He never was a real Christian!” —which is hard to sustain. But there may be something else as well: “Has Sledge noticed something I’ve failed to see?” or “Is my own super strength faith vulnerable as well?” It’s not hard to sense the panic. John Loftus urges believers to pursue the Outsider Test of Faith, and Tim Sledge demonstrates what can happen when an insider tests the faith and sees right through it.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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