In the Face of Brutal Reality, How Does Christianity Survive?

So many human calamities, so much suffering 

For most of us—Christians and nonbelievers alike—it was hard to get into anything resembling the Christian spirit in December 2012. On the 14th of that month, a gunman killed twenty students and six teachers at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT. The nation was in shock, grieving. Ten days later, at a Christmas Eve dinner, at the home of a Catholic friend, she said—during grace, referencing the massacre—“God must have wanted more angels.” I had to resist the temptation to throw my drink in her face. If any Catholic theologians had been present, they would have swung into action, to perform an exorcism, to get rid of the demon that had invaded her brain. Theologians work overtime to explain why their caring, powerful god wasn’t able to stop the gunman. Here was a devout Catholic suggesting that her god had engineered the killing to get more angels. This is a symptom of catechism-induced brain death.



I have told this story many times, but I return to it often because it illustrates the damage that mindless indoctrination causes: believers go to such great lengths to excuse horrendous suffering—to keep their god looking good. Most theologians these days are unwilling to embrace the biblical idea that god willingly massacres huge numbers of people to exact revenge, an idea that is firmly rooted in both the Old and New Testaments. 


Hence the common resort of priests and preachers to banalities, e.g., “God moves in mysterious ways,” and “We can’t know God’s overall plan.” Both of which are guesses, speculation, theological wishful thinking, based on no data whatever. These excuses have made it easier for the laity to shrug off the most horrible events in human history, i.e., “Only god knows why these things have happened, but we can’t let our faith be damaged.” God is great, god is good, yada, yada, yada.   


But no, the New Testament itself disqualifies these shallow excuses. It claims that there is nothing mysterious at all about god’s intense focus on every person


Here is Jesus-script in Luke 12:6-7:


“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”


Jesus-script in Matthew 12:36:


“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.”


Jesus-script in Mark 3:38:


“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin.”


Paul’s warning in Romans 2:16:


“…on the day when, according to my gospel, God through Christ Jesus judges the secret thoughts of all.”


This concept of god—who is the ultimate spy—was more credible to the ancient mindset, when god’s abode was above the earth and below the moon. He/she/it could keep a close watch on everything and everyone. But it is more difficult to accept now, given the scope of the Cosmos—hundreds of billions of galaxies—and with the human population of more than seven billion. But hey, Christians are stuck with this god, who knows what every human being is saying and thinking, 24/7. He knows what every person is going through, hence this god’s tolerance of horrible suffering is inexplicable and inexcusable. 

Thus is just won’t do to shrug off terrible suffering as somehow part of god’s bigger plan that we cannot know. If you take the New Testament seriously, god is aware of every hurt suffered by any human anywhere at any time. But that doesn’t stop devout believers from ignoring terrible calamities, in the battle to hold to faith. 


A few weeks ago, I published an article here about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, 6 August 1945, which incinerated 80,000-100,000 people in an instant. “Well, that had to be done to force Japan to surrender.” Yes, of course, it was strategic. But that doesn’t eliminate the huge theological problem: god just watched it happen—powerless to prevent it, powerless to influence human policy makers? I suggested that one good way to grasp this theological problem is look into what happened on the ground, to real people. Reading John Hersey’s classic report, Hiroshimaenables that kind of close inspection. Don’t forget: according to Christian theology, god was paying close attention to every one of those thousands of people who died so horribly that day.    


One of the greatest calamities in human history was World War I. It was the first war that saw the use of advanced weaponry, such as machine guns, tanks, poison gas, flame throwers, and aircraft. In 2007, Historian G. J. Meyer published A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 (800 pages). He has written that it “seemed almost the suicide of Europe.” “Death rained down (on average, fifty-five German soldiers died in every hour of the fifty-month-long conflict), killing and sparing the weak and the strong at random.” Meyer wrote these words in his 2013 reflections on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. This book was

published in 1928, and is important study for the devout who are inclined to shrug off World War I as a theological problem. Meyer also wrote:


“Remarque’s book has stood as an immovable boulder in the path of anyone wanting to portray what was arguably history’s filthiest and most utterly pointless war as anything other than filthy and pointless.” 


It also stands an immovable bolder in the path of Christian theologians who refuse to see World War I as a challenge to their faith in a good and caring god. 


Remarque (1898-2070), as a German teenager, fought in the trenches during the war, then spent a long time recovering from wounds. His novel is based on what he saw, experienced, and felt. 


“Beside me a lance-corporal has his head torn off. He runs a few steps more while the blood spouts from his neck like a fountain.” (p. 86)


“A surprise gas-attack carries off a lot of them. They have not yet learned what to do. We found a dug-out full of them, with blue heads and black lips. Some of them in a shell-hole took off their masks too soon; they did not know that the gas lies longest in the hollows; when they saw others on top without masks they pulled theirs off too and swallowed enough to scorch their lungs. Their condition is hopeless, they choke to death with haemorrhages and suffocation.” (p. 98)


“Bombardments, barrages, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades—words, words, but they hold the horror of the world.” (p. 99)


“We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell-hole; a lance-corporal crawls a mile and a half on his hands dragging his smashed knee after him; another goes to the dressing station and over his clasped hands bulge his intestines; we see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces; we find one man who has held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death.” (p. 101)


“…tanks are machines, their caterpillars run on as endless as the war, they are annihilation, they roll without feeling into the craters, and climb up again without stopping, a fleet of roaring, smoke-belching armour-clads, invulnerable steel beasts squashing the dead and the wounded—we shrivel up in our thin skin before them, against their colossal weight our arms are sticks of straw, and our hand-grenades matches.” (p. 206)


This is how fifty-five German soldiers died every hour of the four-year war, with similar numbers for French and English soldiers—and those of so many other nations that were dragged into the war. If an all-powerful, caring, competent god had been paying close attention to each one of them—remember those texts from the New Testament—how can the inaction of this god be explained and excused? “Oh, god granted us free will, so it’s all our fault”—don’t even think about advancing this argument. When the suffering is so horrible and so massive, compassion dictates that god must do something. Otherwise god is a joke—and “free will” is no defense whatever. 


Yet another major theological problem comes to mind when we think about World War I: the major powers that fought each other so viciously—e.g. England, France, Germany—considered themselves Christian nations; they worshipped and prayed to the same god, were sure that this god was on their side, and prayed to the same god for guidance and deliverance; prayed to the same god that their soldiers would be protected. Robert Conner has pointed out the foolishness of this theology:


“On July 1, 1916, the British suffered over 57,000 casualties during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. I’m sure that most of their

soldiers had been assured their lives were in God’s tender hands. Guess they must have slipped through His fingers…or something.” (Debunking Christianity Blog, 4 November 2017).  


Why were the leaders of these Christian nations so focused on hatred of each other? How is it that their god couldn’t reach the minds of the Christian leaders of these nations with one clear and simple message: just stop it already! And why did they devise even more horrible instruments of war? Remarque also wrote:


“I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring.” (p. 194)


There came a time when the shallowness of Christian theology was finally noticed. Barbara Tuchman, in her classic work, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, wrote this about the aftermath of the Black Death, that killed perhaps a third of the population between India and England (I have cited this quote many times—because it is an important insight):


“Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of the age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.” (p. 129)


Every new great catastrophe prompts the same doubts. Substantial secularization has taken place in Europe in the wake of the wars of the 20th Century, as Darrel Ray has pointed out in his book, The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Cultures


“It took two world wars for the Europeans to realize that the prayers of millions of people were not answered. It doesn’t take much intelligence to see that the god isn’t working too well when 92 million people die in two world wars.”  (p. 75)


Yet in the face of brutal reality, Christianity survives. It hangs on and thrives because magical thinking and superstition remain so popular—and have vast worldwide bureaucracies promoting them. Eat this, drink that—the body and blood of Jesus—and you get eternal life. These are magic potions borrowed from other ancient cults. Or believe this, or don’t believe that, with similar outcomes. But priests and preachers, apologists and theologians have never been able to explain/resolve the utter incoherence of belief in a good, caring, competent god who hasn’t given a damn about colossal human suffering, century after century.  




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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