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Letters from a Skeptic
A Son Wrestles with His Father's Questions About Christianity
By GREGORY A. BOYD, EDWARD K. BOYD
David C. CookCopyright © 2008 Gregory Boyd
All rights reserved.
Why has Christianity done so much harm?
March 13, 1989 Dear Greg,
I received your letter yesterday and found it most thought-provoking.
Let me first say that I'm excited about your debate with the Islamic scholar and wish I could be there to see it. If it is possible, could you get me a tape of it? Let me know.
I find your idea of dialoguing about the subject of Christianity very interesting and I'd be happy to do it. I've got enough time on my hands. I think you're giving me too much credit though, Greg. My belief (or lack of it) is not based too much on any positive position I hold, but rather, on a host of negative ones. I can find plenty wrong with most religious and political views, but I'm not at all firm on what I personally believe—at least not on religious matters. I really don't have a "faith" or "worldview" of any sort. I only know for sure what I don't believe. Also, unlike you, I'm not a trained philosopher, so if you write to me like you wrote in your dissertation, forget it! I won't be able to follow you. So you'll have to keep it simple.
As you know, I admire the education you've pursued, Greg, and I have often wondered how it is that you could continue to believe in this Christianity business in spite of the rather liberal institutions you've attended. It baffles me. I find the whole thing pretty implausible. But I've never been one to pass up an argument, so why start now?
You invited me to raise whatever objections come to mind, so I'll jump right in. Here's one I've wondered about a lot: How could an all-powerful and all- loving God allow the church to do so much harm to humanity for so long? Isn't this supposed to be His true church, His representation on earth? That's what I was taught in my Catholic days.
So I'm wondering, where was God when the Christians were slaughtering the Muslims and Jews—women and children included—during the "holy" Crusades? Why did God allow "His people" to burn almost the entire population of Jewish "unbelievers" in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition? Why would an all-loving God allow the church to take part in something like the Holocaust (at best, it looked in the other direction)—and do all these things "in His name"?
To my mind, this alone is quite enough to prove that the church does not possess any true philosophy. And it was this church, was it not, that decided which books were "divine" and should constitute the "Holy Bible." As far as I'm concerned, this is itself enough to reject the Bible as a joke.
Well, you wanted an objection: You've got one. I look forward to your response.
Give my love to Shelley and the kids.
Love always, Dad
* * *
In response to ... Why has Christianity done so much harm?
March 16, 1989 Dear Dad,
Thanks so much for your letter. About my debate, if I can get a tape for you, I certainly will. I know they have even videotaped these debates before (the man I'm debating has on file over 300 such videotapes!), but I don't know the plans of the Muslim association sponsoring this debate. I'll let you know.
I'm so happy you're willing and interested in having an ongoing discussion about Christianity. I can tell this is going to be engaging and stimulating for both of us. I know you are, as you said, much more sure about what you don't believe than about what you do believe. That's fine. It's always easier to prove a false theory false than it is to prove a true one true, so it is reasonable to have more beliefs about what you think is false than about what you think is true. It's a sign of a healthy, critical mind.
I would only ask that you try to keep an open mind as to the possibility of the truth of at least some of the central beliefs that Christianity has traditionally taught. My only claim—the one I want to attempt to defend—is that the foundational beliefs of Christianity are the most reasonable beliefs to base one's life on. The belief that there is a personal, loving God who is ultimately revealed in and through Jesus Christ, who has provided salvation by grace to the world through this man, and who has inspired the Bible as our means of learning of, and interacting with, Himself: These beliefs, I argue, are more substantiated, and far more fulfilling, than any other worldview one could hold. And my goal, quite frankly, is to convince you of the truth of these beliefs and bring you into a relationship with Christ. I know firsthand the fullness of life, the peace, and the joy that this relationship gives, and I want to share it with you. And, as you requested, I promise to keep my end of the discussion on a layperson's level.
Now the objection you raised in your last letter was a really good one. (I clearly am not, as you humbly claim, giving you "too much credit.") My first and primary response is that I don't think God can be held responsible for what the Catholic Church—or any church, or any religion whatsoever—has done or shall do. From my perspective, the God whom the Bible talks about, and whom Jesus Christ incarnates, is a God of love, and this entails that He is a God of freedom, for you cannot have love without freedom. We were created with the ability to choose love, and thus with the potential to choose its opposite—evil.
To assume that God is responsible for our evil—even the evil committed "in His name"—is, I suspect, to assume that humans are robots who simply act out a divine, preplanned program. But if that were the case, we could never be loving beings. I want to argue that, ultimately, all evil in the world comes from free wills other than God. What God wills and does is always good. Whatever is not good has its origin from someone or something other than God.
The fact that it was the "Christian church" which chose to do the evils you write about, and to do them using God's name, in my mind only serves to show that all that goes under the name of "Christian" is not necessarily Christian. Christianity isn't a religion or an institution of any sort: It's a relationship. Within the religion of Christianity there are, and have always been, genuine Christians—people who have a saving and transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. And this fact accounts for the tremendous good Christianity has brought to the world (in spite of the evils). But the "religion" of Christianity, the "institution" of the church, is not itself Christian. Only people, not institutions, can be Christian.
Thus, I want to sharply distinguish between the Christianity I'm defending and the "Christian church": The two need not have anything more than a name in common. I wouldn't dream of trying to defend all that's been done under the label "Christianity." Like you, I am enraged by a great deal of it.
Well, thanks again for responding. I can't tell you how happy I am that we're openly dialoguing like this. Digest my response and give me your feedback. OK?
With love, GregCHAPTER 2
Why is the world so full of suffering?
March 23, 1989 Dear Greg,
Nice to hear from you so soon. I'm surprised you can keep up this fast a pace of letter-writing amidst your busy schedule. But I've got a good bit of time on my hands, so you set the pace. Like you, I'm enjoying the chance to air our thoughts.
Well, your distinction between the "Christian church" and "Christians" is interesting and novel, but frankly, I don't buy it. Isn't the church supposed to be God's delegated authority on earth, or is that simply a Catholic idea I picked up along the way? In any case, you would think that God would oversee at least some of its activities if it is to be His vehicle for saving the world.
But this is really just part of a bigger problem I have with the idea of an all-loving God. It's not just the evil in the church that's the problem, it's the evil in the whole world. If God created this world and cares about it, why is there so damn much suffering in it? In your letter your answer was that God can't be held responsible because He gave man the freedom to choose to do right or wrong. But, Greg, I don't feel that the question can be swept away so easily. When the freedom to decide to do harm results in pain and suffering to innocent people, God is simply not the "loving" God you make Him out to be!
I thought about this when I read about this lunatic down here in Florida who was released from jail after some seven or eight years for raping a teenage girl and then chopping off both her arms, leaving her for dead. It was his free choice to commit the crime, but what choice did the innocent girl have? It would appear that the "loving," protecting God forgot all about her! Why does God value the freedom of the criminal, but not the freedom of the victim?
Another situation along these lines is the drought in Africa causing millions of people to starve because of the lack of rain. There are no choices involved here. Nature just got fouled up in the water supply, so millions of people, all of them innocent, most of them children, die a horrible death. Where was the "loving and protecting" God during this, or did He just forget them? Or was God punishing them for some sins, or for being Muslim, like I've heard some bozo Christian evangelist say? That would be worse than a God who just forgets them!
The point is, this world doesn't look at all like the kind of world we'd have if there were an all-powerful, all-loving God behind it. And I don't see that your explanation of freedom improves the situation much.
Well, enough for now. Look forward to your letter.
Lots of love, Dad
* * *
In response to ... Why is the world so full of suffering?
March 29, 1989 Dear Dad,
Well, Dad, I've got to admit that you are raising some extremely good points in your letters. You are raising the most difficult questions a theist can face. This is really good material.
Now, you're wondering how an all-loving God could allow a girl to get raped and mutilated by a sicko, and you don't buy the explanation that God gave this sicko free will, for this explanation doesn't take into consideration the (violated) free will of the girl.
This is a very tough question, to the point where it's almost insensitive to even give an answer. And, indeed, under the emotional impact of this nightmare it would be perfectly understandable to be angry at God and everything else in the world. For those touched by this tragedy, rage is the only understandable immediate response. The Bible itself records the honest questions, and even angry prayers, of many "heroes of the faith" (e.g., Job, David, Jeremiah). God isn't threatened by our anger or doubts.
But when the dust eventually settles, there comes a time to begin to think through who is really responsible for this evil. And when we do this, my contention is that responsibility can't be attached to God.
It seems to me, Dad, that if God is going to give free wills to His creatures, He has to allow for the possibility of them misusing that freedom, even if this means hurting others. To be significantly free is to be morally responsible, and to be morally responsible means being morally responsible to each other. What is the freedom to love or not love unless it is freedom to enrich or harm another? God structured things this way because the alternative would be to have a race of robots who can't genuinely love—but that's hardly worth creating, is it?
So why doesn't God intervene every time someone is going to misuse his freedom and hurt another person? The answer, I believe, is found in the nature of freedom itself. A freedom which is prevented from being exercised whenever it was going to be misused simply wouldn't be freedom.
Look at it this way: If I give Denay five dollars, can I completely control the way she spends it? If I stepped in every time she was going to spend this money unwisely (according to my judgment), is it really her money at all? Did I really give her anything? If the only things she can buy with her money are things which I decide are worthwhile, is it really her money at all? Is it not rather still my money which I am indirectly spending through her?
So too, if God really gives us freedom, it must be, at least to a large extent, irrevocable. He must have, within limits, a "hands-off" attitude toward it. God creates free people who can do as they please, not determined instruments who always end up doing what He pleases.
Well, I hope this sheds a little light on this sticky question. If I'm correct, the horrendous evil we see people inflicting on each other in this world is a necessary possibility if this is to be the kind of world where love is possible. Even God couldn't have it any other way. Let me know if, and how, you see it differently.
I look forward to your response.
As always, with all my love, GregCHAPTER 3
Is the risk of freedom worth all the suffering?
April 8, 1989 Dear Greg,
I trust all is going well with you and the family. How is your Muslim debate shaping up? Sorry I was a bit slow in responding to your last letter, but it required a good bit of thought.
Your point about the relationship between freedom and responsibility may have something to it. It's most intriguing. But I have another nagging question. One has to question the wisdom of a Creator who would wager so much for freedom. Is it all worth it? To create a world in which madmen like Hitler or Stalin can use their freedom to take away the freedom—and the lives—of millions of others is, quite frankly, very poor management. If He values freedom so much, why the hell did God make it so tenuous that the will of one could destroy the freedom of millions?
Is the whole thing worth it? Freedom's nice, but I don't know if it's worth all the evil and pain we see in this world. I'm sure if we could ask that girl who was raped and mutilated, she'd say it wasn't worth it. If you could talk to the Jewish victims of Auschwitz, they'd say to hell with Hitler's precious free will. If you could talk to the Ethiopian mother of the kid dying as he tries to suck one more drop of milk from her dehydrated breast, I doubt she would say it was worth it.
Sorry to be such a tough nut, but it seems like a valid question.
Lots of love, Dad
* * *
In response to ... Is the risk of freedom worth all the suffering?
April 11, 1989 Dear Dad,
I appreciate the seriousness with which you're taking our correspondence. You're clearly putting a lot of thought into these letters, and I love it. Your question is certainly valid.
There are four points I'd like to discuss in response to your question. First, I would argue that the risk of freedom just be exactly proportional to its potential for good. If I have the freedom to love one person only, I have the freedom to hurt one person only. If I have the freedom to love them a little, I have the freedom to hurt them a little. If I can love them a great deal, I can hurt them a great deal. And so on.
The fact that we humans have such an incredible amount of potential for evil, then, is to my mind indicative of the fact that we also have an incredible amount of potential for good. Yes, there are Hitlers and Stalins in the world. But there are also the Raoul Wallenbergs, the Mother Teresas, the Martin Luther King Jrs. And I don't see how you could have the latter without at least risking the possibility of the former. If we have the potential to oppress or slay millions, it's because we also have the potential to liberate and love millions.
I can understand why you might see this as "bad management," and perhaps it would be if there were some other way of doing things. But I don't believe there is. In my view the proportionality between the possibilities of good and evil inherent in freedom is what's called a metaphysical truth. It's like the three sides of a triangle. If you have freedom, you have to have this risk.
So is it all worth it? This is my second point. Under the impact of nightmarish tragedy, it is certainly understandable that one might think not. But consider three things: First, in our own lives we all know that love can hurt. In loving another person, in raising kids, in developing deep friendships, we often suffer a great deal. I know you've experienced your share of this in your own life. People reject us, they die, kids rebel, etc. And yet, we continue to love. We normally regard it as cowardly, as tragic, and as terribly unhealthy not to do so. If a person never loved, he'd never suffer. But then again, he'd never really live.
Excerpted from Letters from a Skeptic by GREGORY A. BOYD, EDWARD K. BOYD. Copyright © 2008 Gregory Boyd. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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