The Comfort of Faith is Shattered by Suffering and Disaster

The prevalence of medieval thinking

It’s hard to unsee it once you’ve seen it: the severity of Christian theology. Here is the Jesus-script we find in Matthew 12:36-37:  “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” That’s pretty brutal, and the theology behind it is terrifying: It’s totalitarian monotheism: a god is watching you at every moment of your life, and even keeps track of every careless word you utter. And no, John 3:16 (“God so loved the world”) does not modify this terrible threat. In fact, just two verses later, 3:18, we find this warning: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already…” The final verse of the chapter (36) drives home the point: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” The apostle Paul was just as sure about this, as he explained in his Letter to the Romans, 2:5: “But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” He too championed totalitarian monotheism: “…God through Christ Jesus judges the secret thoughts of all” (Romans 2:16).


How can anyone unsee this, once it’s been seen? And why don’t Christians ask that most fundamental question: how did the ancient authors know this—and how do modern Christian theologians who defend it know their god is like this? Tell us where we can find reliable, verifiable, objective evidence that this is how the god of cosmos operates; even many devout Christians would object. This is, in fact, bad theology, and its defenders should have given up on it long ago. And it is so easily ridiculed, as George Carlin demonstrated:


“Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time! But he loves you.”

It's not really a laughing matter, however, as William A. Zingrone

points out in his essay, “Suffering Due to Faith,” in John Loftus’ 2021 anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering. He notes at the outset the common claim that “faith is a source of comfort,” but can that really be true? If anyone truly believes that a god is keeping track—really close track—of all your deeds and words, and that eternal punishment is only a few mistakes away, isn’t comfort in deep trouble? Unless you’re absolutely sure you know the god’s rules—all the dos and don’ts—isn’t every day of life risky business? And if your mind is locked on truths certified by your faith, that too can be scary, anything but comforting, as Zingrone explains:


“For many evangelical Christian parents, the strict doctrinal ideas of their faith lead to a lifetime of constant worry over their children, should they not conform to the church’s teachings. Should their child stray from the correct path and become a non-believer or homosexual, parents fully invested in their conservative Christian faith may experience the anguish of their child being punished by irreversible consignment to hell for an eternity of unimaginable suffering.” (Kindle, p. 448)


But just how do you “get saved”? Evangelicals have commonly put emphasis on the altar call, people “giving themselves” to Christ, which sometimes results in the “once saved, always saved” sentiment. This probably derives from the apostle Paul’s promise in Romans 10:9, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But how does this magic formula align with Paul’s dire warning in Romans 2:6-8?


“He will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life, while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but injustice, there will be wrath and fury.”


In fact, there has been endless argument among Christians for centuries: just exactly how are people saved: how do they arrange/guarantee their passage to heaven? The Catholic Church—no surprise here—insists that its own bureaucracy/dogma/rituals are necessary. Zingrone quotes Father David Nix:


“Every Catholic on the planet is either in sanctifying grace or mortal sin. There is no grey area in this matter. It is extremely black and white: Again, every baptized Catholic on the planet is either in sanctifying grace or mortal sin. Those who die in sanctifying grace go to heaven, or heaven via Purgatory. Those who die in mortal sin go to hell.”  (Kindle, p. 450)


Zingrone is quite right:


“Not a comforting thought. What isn’t at all clear is what constitutes a mortal sin, and it is almost comical to read the various beliefs and interpretations that vary wildly among serious Catholics in the comment sections to the thousands of articles one can find on the internet about the necessity of last rites…there is little comfort to be found in the voluminous labyrinth that is Catholic doctrine. Even those that confess their sins regularly may worry that they missed a mortal one and are not in a state of grace at their death and will not go straight to heaven (and not collect the $200 evidently).”  (Kindle, p. 450)


There seems to be far more stress than comfort here, indeed, suffering due to faith. 


But then there is suffering due to faith on massive levels—quite aside from the issue of earning a place in heaven. Zingrone’s essay includes a major section (10 pages) on religiously motivated acts of terror. When we read these pages it is tough to hold on to any hope that faith is a source of comfort. I recall that, the Sunday after the 9/11 attacks, church attendance spiked in the New York area. At the time I wondered why? How could worshippers derive comfort from a god who allowed the horrible events to happen on his watch? God had the power to provide comfort afterwards, but not to intervene? This reduces piety to worthless, shallow nonsense.  Especially since religious fervor was to blame for what happened, as Zingrone notes:


“The nineteen 9/11 hijackers were educated men living in the West: architects, engineers, and technicians wholly infected with religious reasons to try to attack and revenge western culture, hoping to go straight to paradise as jihadist martyrs as a calculated result.”  (Kindle, p. 452)


“It takes religion to make good people do bad things, from bombing other believers of the wrong sect of Jesus or Mohammed, to flying planes into buildings, to killing infidels, to burning heretics or oneself to death. When it comes to these grisly examples of human suffering, religion has everything to do with it.” (Kindle, p. 454)


In the section titled, “Religious Hostilities Increase Worldwide,” Zingrone describes the inevitable consequence of fervent belief: “I’m right, you’re wrong, so you’d better believe what I do—or else.” There is so much Muslim-on-Muslim violence in the world, because of the Sunni vs Shi’a divide. But Christianity has set the gold standard for religious hate. It is chilling to read Martin Luther’s call for the persecution and torture of Jews, for example; Zingrone notes that the other towering figure of early Protestantism was no better:


“I find it incredibly ironic that the Pew Research Center, a division of the Pew Charitable Trusts begun by a Presbyterian, the founder of Sun Oil Company, Joseph Newton Pew, is the primary source of this excellent information on religious violence worldwide. Presbyterianism was established largely on the charming ideas of our old buddy John Calvin, who hated Jews, thought his enemies deserved beheading and burning at the stake, and was convinced the pope was of course the antichrist.”  (Kindle, p. 458)


Speaking of the pope, “antichrist” is antiquarian piety-speak that can be dropped, but the Catholic Church and its CEO can be accused of major crimes against humanity—no matter how much comfort the faithful claim they get from their ritual and praying to the blessed virgin. We now know for sure that this church has protected its worldwide ring of pedophile priests: it’s part of their corporate culture. I have argued that, from the get-go, the smiling pope should have been holding weekly press conferences, providing details on what he is doing to stop child rape


But Zingrone addresses yet another Catholic scandal, an even bigger crime against humanity: 


“Pope Francis: media darling, progressive, rights crusader, reformer, all around good guy? Or is he a complacent figurehead and an accessory to more suffering and death of children worldwide than all the deaths caused by the pious Muslim brethren of ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups put together?”   (Kindle, p. 462)


He is referring to the Catholic campaign against contraception, mostly famously codified in 1968 by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae. The bottom line: any sex that excludes the possibility of conception is wrong. How can this corrupt bureaucracy stand firm on such policy? The irony, of course, has been pointed out: if altar boys could become pregnant, the policy would be abandoned! But here is the further irony: in more educated countries like Italy and Poland, Catholic women ignore this hardline teaching. What nonsense: that sexual pleasure is god’s gift for conceiving children—and only if that is the outcome. Zingrone goes into considerable detail describing the devestating impact on women in third world countries: having more babies that they cannot afford. But according to this misogynistic Vatican policy, that’s what women are for. Especially in high poverty areas, the world does not need more babies. Zingrone also notes the higher rates of infant mortality. What horrors derive from that 1968 encyclical.


“If the pope was really such a swell guy, a real humanitarian as he is so often gushingly described, he would immediately call on the cardinals and bishops to overturn their heinous policy and wash the blood of millions of children off their hands. But of course, saving the face of Holy Mother Church and fighting as long as possible to not overturn Catholic doctrine, while millions more suffer and die, is more important than even one child’s life to the leaders of the Catholic church.”  (Kindle, p. 465) 


Zingrone pulls no punches, continuing with the approach that we find

in his book, The Arrogance of Religious Thought: Information Kills Religion.


In the final part of his essay, Zingrone discusses the devastating impact of religious thought on the COVID pandemic in the U.S. For example, he compares Vietnam’s approach to COVID, in contrast to Arizona, which are comparable in size. Vietnam adopted health measures that have made it one of the most successful countries in the world in combating COVID; but Arizona’s conservative Catholic governor, Doug Ducey, preferred a “prayerful way,” with horrible consequences. Indeed, the arrogance of religious thought:  


“According to a poll by the University of Chicago Divinity School, nearly 31% of believers in the United States think the coronavirus to be a message from god to change our ways. One would never think in the modern age that this sort of medieval thinking would be so prevalent: ‘There is this strand in modern American Christianity that has rejected the norms of science and medicine and that thinks health can be achieved through discourse with the divine, holy spirit,’ said Bradley Storin, director of religious studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.”

(Kindle, p. 468, emphasis added)


Sure: “The comfort of faith.” A rampaging disease is sent by a god to get humans to “change their ways,” but without a clear message—only theological speculation—that this is the reason. Indeed, this is evidence of the prevalence of medieval thinking in our modern age.  





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). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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