Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father's Questions about Christianity

Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father's Questions about Christianity

by Gregory A. Boyd


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781564762443
Publisher: Cook, David C
Publication date: 12/14/1993
Edition description: New
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Greg Boyd has authored or co-authored 17 books and numerous academic articles. he graduated with honors from Yale Divinity School and Princeton Theological Seminary and was a professor of theology at Bethel University for 16 years and continues to teach there as an adjunct professor. Greg is the founder and senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, and evangelical church in St. Paul, MN.

You can read Gregory's blog at: gregboyd.blogspot.com.

Read an Excerpt

Letters from a Skeptic

A Son Wrestles with His Father's Questions About Christianity


David C. Cook

Copyright © 2008 Gregory Boyd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4347-9980-7



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, Greg



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, Greg



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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Invitation: Can we talk about the Christian faith?13
Part IQuestions About God
Correspondence 1Why has Christianity done so much harm?17
Correspondence 2Why is the world so full of suffering?21
Correspondence 3Is the risk of freedom worth all the suffering?25
Correspondence 4Does God know the future?29
Correspondence 5Why does God create earthquakes and famines?32
Correspondence 6Why did God create Satan?38
Correspondence 7Is your God all-powerful?44
Correspondence 8Why believe in God in the first place?49
Correspondence 9Couldn't it all be by chance?53
Correspondence 10Why didn't God spare your mother?58
Correspondence 11Why would an all-powerful God need prayer?63
Correspondence 12Why would God care about us little humans?69
Part IIQuestions About Jesus Christ
Correspondence 13Why trust the Gospel accounts?77
Correspondence 14Aren't the Gospels full of contradictions?87
Correspondence 15Who wrote the Gospels and when were they written?92
Correspondence 16How can you believe that a man rose from the dead?99
Correspondence 17How can you believe that a man was God?110
Part IIIQuestions About the Bible
Correspondence 18Why does God make believing in Him so difficult?119
Correspondence 19Why do you think the Bible is inspired?126
Correspondence 20Isn't the Bible full of myths and God's vengeance?131
Correspondence 21Didn't the Catholic Church put the Bible together?138
Correspondence 22Why are there so many differing interpretations of the Bible?144
Correspondence 23What about the "holy books" of other religions?149
Part IVQuestions About Christian Life and Docirine
Correspondence 24Do all non-Christians go to hell?155
Correspondence 25How would an all-loving God torture people in an eternal hell?160
Correspondence 26Isn't the Christian life impossible to live?166
Correspondence 27How can another man's death pardon me?172
Correspondence 28How can I be holy and sinful at the same time?179
Correspondence 29How can I be sure it's all true?183
Epilogue: I believe!189

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Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father's Questions about Christianity 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Grace4all More than 1 year ago
Unlike so many apologetic books, this one is an honest, open discussion between a follower of Christ and his unbelieving father in the form of letters. It's not full of the Christian jargon (in fact early on the father calls son out on just that) or pat Christian answers. These are the questions we all wrestle with and this book helped me to understand how God could be in the midst of human messiness and, well, still be an almighty God. It's a keeper.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be an interesting approach to explaining basic christian beliefs. It was at the same time logical and spiritual. I would recommend it for skeptics and those who have conversations about spirituality with them.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am not a religious person. I am now in college and just trying to learn various religions as I did not grow up in a religious household. This book helped me understand a lot of problems I have with Christianity. It is starting to get me to think about becoming a Christian, but I still have a lot of research to do. This was a good book to start my research with as it really convinced me on a lot of topics. The one I had the most trouble with was that all Christians go to Hell. I refuse to believe this and Boyd pointed out that all people go to Heaven through Jesus Christ, but people went to Heaven before Jesus Christ exsisted. This book really helped me, and I bought a few copies as Christmas presents. I am not a person who tries to convince people to be religious as I still am not, but the book was philosophical and answered good questions.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The first person to citique the book had some valid theologicl points but the point that most matters is that Mr. Boyd will spend eternity in Heaven with God because this process touched him. I think as Christians we sometimes focus more on our differences and translations than we celebrate salvation as the central thing we all agree about. While as a Pastor I had a few disagreements with his theology I was also able to see what this journey was about. This book is a journey of love by a son who loves and respects his father and wants to spend eternity in Heaven with him. I cannot in good conscience critisize anyones attempt to lead a lost soul to Christ and this book does just that. The book takes on the questions that every skeptic has and in most cases does it extremely well. I think too many books like this are written on an intelectual level instead of a heart level. This book takes on the heart of the subject of reaching into the God given desire that all of us have to worship and the struggles we have finding someone worthy of our worship. We all worship something and this book leads a father to the only being worthy of that worship. I give this book five stars inspite of my differences in the Theology and would recomend it in a heart beat.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book came into my life at a critical time in my walk with God. It touched on some fundamental questions I had struggled with for years. I passed it on to my father who in turn shared it with his father, a victim of a stroke and a skeptic. Several months later, I got a call that my grandfather had given his heart to Jesus Christ.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is easy to understand and does a great job of showing the debate between Christianity and Atheism. This is a must-read for any student.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I began this book believing that Ed Boyd, the father and skeptic, was absolutely on target with his succinct and clear headed questions that were directed to his rather circumvent and philosophical Christian son, Greg Boyd. Every question I read from the father made me say, 'There, see what your Christian belief can say about that.' As the book progressed I found my position gradually eroding. I began to side more and more with the well thought out answers of the Christian son as opposed to the skeptical father. My own skepticism began to diminish along with the father's. I slowly traveled down the long road to a more reasoned and defensible Christianity. The trip was made along side Greg Boyd's father, both of us fighting all the way. Letters from a Skeptic omitted much of the mystical, 'you have to have faith' concepts with which many Christians are bombarded and was instead a well reasoned, thoughtful, proof-filled defense from a very intelligent Christian theologian. My heartfelt thanks to both Ed and Greg Boyd.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Absolutely the best apologetics book I ever read! THis book not only strengthened my own faith, but gave me ideas about how to defend my faith! I liked this book so much that I emailed Gregory Boyd to tell him how helpful this book was for me. (I am not inclined to do such a thing!) This is also a SUPER book for the teenager or college student who is doubting their faith or 'on the fence' about becoming a Christian. Thanks Gregory for a truly inspiring literary masterpiece!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just finished the last page of this book not 30 minutes ago, and I must say this book has truly changed the way I look at Christianity and the world we live in. I'm just a 20 year old college kid who grew up in the Church, and I never really understood the love God has for us and how much truth there is in the Bible until I read this book. There's no way I can argue with the logical evaluations and clear interpretations of Christianity that Dr. Boyd has presented--he must be a great professor! Dr. Boyd and his father literally opened my eyes to a new and true reality with their honest and straight-forward correspondance. If you or a friend you know is wondering about God and/or Christianity, or if you're a Christian in need of something to confirm your faith, I highly recommend this book!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is by far the best defense and explanation of God and Christianity I have ever read. The authors dad ask questions that I hear most skeptics ask and the author does an amazing job of clearly answering his dads objections.
Guest More than 1 year ago
5 stars for Chp.2,3,8-10,12,18,23,26-29. Especially strong in dealing with the Gospel and Christ's death/resurrection. That's enough to reach sincere seekers. But 4 stars deducted because of the other chapters which are troublesome to say the least. That's because they stem from Boyd's first book 'Trinity & Process' with its distinctively liberal,non-evangelical Process-like Philosophy applied to Jesus & the Bible. These neo-liberal presuppositions (interpretive filters) permeate the author's worldview and cast many doubts about crucial matters like Inerrant Bible, Nature & Attributes of Triune God, literal eternal conscious torment in hell, God's exhaustive definite foreknowledge of ALL free futures, how evil plays itself out in a Good God's fallen world (which God cursed in judgment). Boyd gets these critical,essential Christian doctrines almost 100% wrong,heterodox,flawed Some direct quotes that set the Holy Ghost alarm bells off, which doesn't happen with similar books by Josh McDowell, Greg Laurie, Chuck Smith, Billy Graham, Hank Hanegraaff: "When I first became a Christian..I had gotten myself involved in some sort of..cult..(later) my Christianity became more mature and less 'cultic' and narrow- minded." (Reply) "I often wondered how you could continue to believe this Christianity business inspite of the rather liberal institutions (B.A.Philosophy-U.Minn;M.Div.- Yale;Ph.D-Princeton)you've attended." "until we make them,(our decisions)don't exist.Thus in my view at least,there simply isn't anything to know until we make it there to know (Trinity&Process philosophy). So God can't foreknow..decisions of people until..they create their decisions. This isn't the traditional Christian position (which) I think is philosophically untenable (Reply) "It seems like your view of God is much more 'human' than what I've always thought God was supposed to be..I wonder if your view is just your own creation." "As far as I'm concerned, the attempt of scholars to arrive at the exact words of Jesus..is as futile as it is needless. I regard the effort of fundamentalists (evangelicals) to get everything in the Gospels to 'harmonize' perfectly (as being) in exactly the same (category)..Almost all the alleged 'contradictions' in the Gospels are the result of people misusing them, treating them like 20th century works under a 'snapshot-tape recording' criteria of truth...the 'contradictions' disappear, not because they are explained away, but because they instantly become totally irrelevant." So, Gregory Boyd, your Bible has errors and contradictions. But in your mind that's o.k. They're irrelevant. A mistaken Bible is good enough, it seems? Just these few excerpts should alert the cautious evangelical seeking a witnessing tool that this is not the one to use. Stick with Josh,Hank,Chuck,Billy,and the error-free Bible itself (what a concept!) Like stale cookies laced with questionable substances, so is this book with enough nutrition in the Gospel chapters (26-29) to feed the starving, but too much foreign objectionable matter like egg shells & bacteria mixed with novel Process-like Philosophical ingredients to be passed over for genuine, Evangelical, Kosher 'soul-food'