Christianity: Three Strikes and You’re OUT

There is no recovery from FATAL Strike Three

The church has done such a good job idealizing and promoting Jesus that its rank and file members aren’t even aware of strikes one and two. They don’t study and probe. They rarely ask: where did our beliefs come from


Strike One: 


In the context of first-century religious beliefs, the genesis of Christianity is hardly a surprise. It was a breakaway Jewish sect that adopted belief in a dying-and-rising savior god. There were several such cults, whose strong appeal was the promise of eternal life through a god who had the power to overcome death; devotees of the cults could share in this benefit. For more on this ancient superstition see Derreck Bennett’s essay “Dying and Rising Gods” in the anthology edited by John Loftus and Robert Price, Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist? and Richard Carrier’s essay “Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It.”  The folks in the pews haven’t caught on. When I once asked a devout woman where her beliefs came from, she responded proudly, “From my grandmother!” There was no curiosity at all about first-century Christian origins.


Strike Two:


Nor is there much curiosity—or so it would seem—to discover Jesus as depicted in the gospels. This would require careful, thoughtful examination of all the Jesus quotes, but the majority of the faithful (as surveys have shown) aren’t up to this task. Jesus as presented in ritual, hymns, art, and stained glass is what sustains them—and, of course, the nice Jesus quotes read from the pulpit. A high percentage of the laity would probably look for another religion if they confronted honestly so many of the alarming words of Jesus that they disagree with. So how’s this for irony: Jesus himself is Strike Two


Strike Three: The Big One


James A. Haught, author of Religion Is Dying: Soaring Secularism in American and the West, punctured God's reputation: 


“Horrible occurrences such as the Indian Ocean tsunami that drowned 100,00 children prove clearly that the universe isn’t administered by an all-loving invisible father. No compassionate creator would devise killer earthquakes and hurricanes—or breast cancer for women and leukemia for children.” 


Think of it: thousands of infants, toddlers, and children crushed and drowned. It is obvious that a caring, powerful god—the one idolized by Christians—was paying no attention whatever. But Christians don’t seem to be able to process that. A devout colleague of mine at the time commented on how horrible the tsunami was, and I responded: “Yes, God overslept again.” I will never forget the look on his face—a blend of horror and anguish—when he heard these words. He knew exactly what I was talking about. But, of course, he was not able to integrate harsh reality into the naïve god-is-love worldview that had been pounded into his brain since infancy. 


Indeed, the church is one of the most powerful propaganda engines ever invented, and it’s big business as well, highly invested in diverting attention from harsh reality. Thus its apologists come forward with excuses for God, even in the wake of colossal tragedies like the Indian Ocean tsunami. In fact, the catalogue of colossal tragedies in human history should, by now, have wiped out belief in kind, attentive gods. But Christian apologists—priests, preachers, theologians, and other professional spinmeisters—do their best to explain away the problem of horrendous suffering, this Big Strike Three against Christianity.


If only the laity could be coaxed away from the shallow, contrived excuses; if only they were willing to do serious homework, namely, show some backbone to examine critically the excuses for God and hold the apologists accountable. Yes, this does require homework.  


The new John Loftus anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering, is a good place to start. This is a departure from banal devotional literature churned out by famous preachers: 22 essays, 508 pages. A quick

glance at the thorough footnoting shows that this book is a portal to many other writings on the theology implications of suffering. Indeed, in his Introduction, Loftus points out that, since 1996 there have been eleven other anthologies about suffering. Serious thinkers keep writing on the topic because the oft-repeated excuses for God don’t work. As Loftus points out, “I think the proliferation of these anthologies is indictive of the crisis for orthodox theism.” (p. 11) 


These excuses fall into several broad categories, e.g., God’s ways are mysterious; he has a bigger plan that we can’t grasp; he doesn’t want to interfere with our free will; sometimes he needs to punish us; suffering can help build our characters. But it’s impossible to make sense of the Indian Ocean tsunami—up to 100,000 infants, toddlers, and children killed—using any of these excuses. 


The same goes for other examples of horrendous suffering: the savagery of the Crusades, the Black Death of the 14thcentury, the 30-Years War (1618-1648), some ninety million people killed during two world wars, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Loftus is correct: “…the way to honestly evaluate the compatibility of god and horrendous or horrific or heinous suffering is to focus on clearly obvious concrete test cases that no one can deny.” (p. 12)  When we face these head-on, study them in detail, it’s impossible to see a good god playing any role—no matter how hard the theologians try; they end up with incoherent faith, as Loftus notes:


“… the person who has the greatest obligation to alleviate horrendous suffering is a theistic omni-god, if he exists. Any person who is wholly good would be morally obligated to prevent horrendous suffering, especially if all it took was a ‘snap’ of his or her omnipotent fingers to do so.” (p. 3)


When you pick up this new Loftus anthology, it is important not to skip the Foreword by Stephen Law. He describes four strategies that theists have used to modify the problem of suffering, to render it less damaging to God. The theodicy strategy, for example, fails to work as well as its advocates propose: “The various theodicies that theists have constructed appear, both individually and collectively, to fall spectacularly short of explaining the horrendous pain and suffering of humans and other sentient creatures.” (p. xvii)


Another strategy has been to argue that the evidence for God is sufficient to maintain belief, outweighing the anguish we feel in the presence of suffering. But Law challenges the idea that there is sufficient evidence:


‘Most of the most popular arguments for the existence of God, certainly in their simplest forms, appear to provide no clue as to the moral character of our creator, first cause, intelligent designer, or Prime Mover. It’s a huge, and, as it stands, unwarranted leap to go from ‘there is some sort of intelligence behind the universe…’ to ‘and it’s perfectly good.’ While there are a few arguments specifically for a good god, they are among the most contentious arguments.” (p. xviii)


“In order to more than just counter-balance the otherwise compelling argument against a good God provided by the evidential problem of evil, an argument for a good God would need to be still more compelling. Yet even many theists admit that the argument specifically for a good God are less than decisive.” (p. xix)


Then there is that inevitable fallback position: “God is real because I know he’s real.” These are theists, Law points out, who “…just know a good God exists by means of direct experience.” (p. xix) But are these believers willing to validate so many other experiences based on the just-know attitude? Probably not!


“Claims to such evidence-trumping subjective experiences are common when it comes to beliefs in extraordinary hidden agents—ghosts, fairies, angels, dead ancestors, native spirits, demons, gods, common and so on. Suggest to Mary that there’s overwhelming evidence that the deceased don’t hang around and communicate with the living, and Mary may insist she just knows that her dead Auntie is currently in the room with her.” (p. xix)


In his Introduction—which is a concise, hard-hitting primer on the flaws of Christian theism— Loftus describes how we would have expected a morally perfect god to have handled creation: what should have been done differently. Oddly enough, Christians themselves have their thoughts on this too, i.e., when they employ intercessory prayers, asking their god to change things, alter the way his creation plays out.  


I recommend paying careful attention to the four Moral Concerns Loftus describes (pp. 6-10). These alone are devastating to the Christian concept of god, and set the tone for the book. 


God should have taken these to heart when he set up the world. 


Moral Concern One: Human “free will” is often used by theologians to get god off the hook—he can’t help it if we behave badly—but, no, god isn’t off the hook at all:


“A perfectly good, all-powerful, all-knowing god could keep us from abusing our freedom by creating us with a stronger propensity to dislike wrongdoing, just like we have an aversion to drinking motor oil. We could still drink it if we wanted to, but it's nauseating. Such a deity could easily keep a person from molesting a child or raping someone if at the very thought of it the person began to suffer from severe nausea.” (pp. 6-7)


Moral Concern Two: From the get-go, god could have made the world a less dangerous place. Was it beyond god’s powers to make a planet that isn’t so violent? How dare he put humans and animals in an environment in which hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, famines, etc. etc. have been so common? A moral deity would certainly have arranged things more carefully. Loftus notes that animal predation is a major part of this moral failure: “The extent of animal suffering cries out against the existence of a good god. This ubiquitous suffering is perhaps the most difficult problem of all.” (p. 8)


Moral Concern Three: A morally capable, responsible god could have done a much better job designing human bodies! There are thousands of genetic diseases: that “perfect” newborn you hold in your arms may be far from perfect. Why are we so ravaged by disease? Here above all, Christians should be able to intuit that something is wrong; so many of their intercessory prayers are pleas with their god to intervene, to make changes to his basic setup. Loftus notes, as well, one of god’s biggest mistakes:


“A perfectly good, all-powerful, all-knowing god could have created all human beings with one color of skin. There, that was easy! There has been too much killing and slavery, and there have been too many wars because we don’t all have the same color of skin.” (p. 8)


Moral Concern Four: Why didn’t god set the record straight about himself from the very beginning? Let humans know which religion is the right one! So much strife and anguish could have been avoided. How simple it would have been, as Loftus points out; god


“… could have made his revelation available to every culture in the same way, with no discrepancies and buttressed by some astounding evidence-based miracles. This deity would provide a general revelation for everyone in the world, or a naturalistic ethic, that excluded all religions that were sexist, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, narcissistic, tribalistic, patriotic, war mongering, and otherwise barbaric.” (pp. 9-10)


After carefully pondering these prefaces to the book by Stephen Law and John Loftus, then move on to the 22 essays that consider horrendous suffering within the context of unrealistically optimistic theism. “The goal of this book,” Loftus states, “is to be informative, factual, fair-minded, and objective about suffering, because that’s what the honest search for truth demands. It’s also to change the minds of believers one reader at a time, and the world as a whole…” (p. 11) 





David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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