My misgivings with the deity most Christians believe in began during my college days. I attended a conservative religious school. The administration of the institution tried to steer the bulk of the student body towards being pastors or missionaries. One tactic they employed was to make us feel guilty about the “billions of unreached people” who would go to Hell because nobody preached the Christian gospel to them.
I recall the man who taught my New Testament introduction class saying that God had provided the means for humanity’s salvation on the cross, but that He left it up to the church to spread the news of that provision. Thus, anyone who did not hear about Christ in this life, for whatever reason, would be tortured forever to satisfy the “justice” of the Almighty.
So, for the Buddhist monk who died five minutes after Christ issued the Great Commission, there was no slack. He was toast. Same for the Native American shaman an ocean away, and the folks in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Professor Richard Collier of Toccoa Falls College, they were all equally screwed.
Not only would things turn out horribly wrong for those poor souls, but matters would not go well for us at the Final Judgment either, if we heard God’s call to preach and ignored it. At the very least we would watch as the unsaved were tossed into the Lake of Fire. And Jesus would be forever disappointed with us for letting it happen.
But the hereafter wasn’t our only source of anxiety. Like most young people, we were concerned with our futures here on earth. We wondered how we would make a living, who we would marry, and how we would ever repay our student loans with the tiny pay most ministers earn.
Not to worry, we were assured. God was in control, and would care for all of our needs. Our job was to simply step out in faith and we would be miraculously taken care of. To reinforce this message we were told apocryphal tales about cash strapped clergy who the Lord had miraculously provided for. We all knew the story about the pastor whose church couldn’t pay him a proper salary, but who received a check in the mail just in time to pay his rent and buy his family some food.
For some reason the man’s name and location were never mentioned, so we were unable to verify the account.
Another yarn peddled to us concerned two missionaries lost in the jungle and on the verge of starvation. Weak with hunger, they collapsed to the ground, and as they did one looked up and saw a nearby fruit tree. Struggling to his feet, he picked the sweet produce for him and his companion, and they regained their strength and went about the work of evangelizing the locals.
Exactly who this devoted pair were remained a mystery, but we were assured the story was true.
Needless to say these wonderful tales clashed with reality. The little town the college was in was filled with graduates who had finished school deeply in debt. Unable to raise financial support to be pastors or missionaries, and without marketable job skills, they labored in low paid factory jobs, stocked shelves at grocery stores, flipped burgers or waited tables for their former classmates.
There were no miraculous checks showing up in their mailboxes.
Like all people of faith, our trust in our beliefs was tested from time to time. Particularly tragic was what happened to the Dean of Men’s daughter, a lovely young girl named Kimberly, who was traveling in a car that struck a tree at a high rate of speed one sunny afternoon. She flew through the windshield and into the large oak that the vehicle had collided with. She was rushed to the hospital and the entire campus prayed intensely for her recovery. For the first few days after the wreck it seemed that God was listening, as reports came from the hospital that she would be fine.
Then about five days after the accident she slipped into a coma. She was dead within seventy two hours. It seemed the God who routed checks to cash strapped pastors and grew apples for starving missionaries was unwilling to intervene in her case.
Not that this caused any of us to lose our faith, of course. The power of the human mind to rationalize unwanted news is nothing if not astounding. I recall one of my classmates saying that a pair of people had gotten saved after hearing of Kimberly’s death. “I can see why God would let her die,” he opined, “if it would save two souls from Hell. It was worth it.”
One friend of mine chose not to dismiss her doubts so easily, and she approached a professor with her concerns. Instead of addressing the issues she raised he told her that she needed to “surrender her rights to the Lord,” including her right to question her faith.
I share these bleak memories with you to illustrate the kind of God that too many people believe in:
1.) One who tosses people into Hell for not believing the correct facts about Him, even if they never had a chance to hear them;
2.) One who has a highly detailed plan for our lives, including our choice of vocations and the exact identity of our spouses;
3.) One who provides for his followers, unless He sees that sacrificing one of them will gain him two additional pawns for His chess match with the Devil;
4.) One who demands we stop thinking for ourselves and blindly trust what we are told by ecclesiastical authority figures.
Over the years I have watched dozens of old friends who believed in this God degenerate into bitter, enraged and pitiful caricatures of their former selves. And it’s little wonder that they’ve turned out that way. Committing one’s heart, mind and life to such a deranged Creature is like being married to an abusive, alcoholic spouse.
The victim is worn down by the need to make excuses, to rationalize, and to blame oneself for the failings of their partner.
This goes on year after torturous year, until finally they realize how deeply they have been betrayed. When that dark day arrives there is nothing left but a final plunge into nihilistic despair.
It’s said that we all create God in our own image, and I wonder how sick the people were who invented this Cosmic Despot from their fears, hatreds and insecurities. Their twisted view of the Almighty has haunted humanity for too long. It is time for their God to go.
All well and good, of course, but then the question comes to mind of what kind of Being will take his place. That’s the topic I will be exploring in future posts. We’ll explore how powerful God really is, how He can and cannot intervene in the universe, what Christ’s death really means for us, the kind of life Jesus wants us to live, and how we will be judged in the world after this one.
In the meantime I close with a prayer for my old mentors and fellow students. It’s based on a quote from Voltaire which I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing for the occasion:
“May the true God of the Universe, who doesn’t send people to Hell for other’s actions, doesn’t micro-manage His children’s lives, doesn’t treat us like pawns, and doesn’t demand that we commit intellectual suicide – may He forgive the pitiful creatures who blaspheme Him.”
To which I say a hearty “Amen.”