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Leaving the Faith

By the early to mid-1990s I had come to think that whatever I had held dear and cherished on the basis of my belief in the Christian God, could still be held dear and cherished without that belief.   Do I stand in awe before the unfathomable vastness and incredible majesty of the universe?  Do I welcome and feel heartfelt gratitude for moments of grace?  Do I value the love of family and the companionship of friends?  Do I appreciate the many good things in life: My work?  Travel?  Good food and good drink?  All the little things that make life enjoyable?  Yes, but what does any of this necessarily have to do with God?

As a Christian – from the time I was able to think, through my teenage and early-twenties fundamentalist period, up to my more mature adult liberal phase – I had believed in some form of the traditional, biblical God.  This was a God who was not some kind of remote designer of the universe who had gotten the ball rolling and then stood aloof from everything he had created.  This was a God who was active in the world.  He loved people and was intent on showering his love on them.  He helped them when they were in need.  He answered their prayers.  He intervened in this world when it was necessary and important to do so.

But I had come very much to doubt that any such God existed.  And it was the problem of suffering that had created these doubts and that eventually led me to doubt it so much that I simply no longer believed it.   If God helps his people – why doesn’t he help his people?  If he answers prayer, why doesn’t he answer prayer?  If he intervenes, why doesn’t he intervene?

It was innocent suffering that made me think there is no such God.  People who are faithful to God, who devote their lives to him, who pray to him suffer no less than those who are indifferent to God or even scornful toward his existence.   When a tsunami kills 300,000 people, the believers are included along with the unbelievers.   No difference.  When a child starves to death, as happens every seven seconds, her prayers are never answered.  When a Holocaust kills many millions of people, the Chosen people are not exempt.  Just the opposite.

I came to think that it was very easy indeed for me as a middle class, white male, with a good career as a university professor, a loving wife and two terrific young kids, a house to live in and never any concerns about having enough to eat, plenty of money to buy cars and TVs and computers and … and all that, it was very easy for me to be grateful to God and to think that he acted on my behalf to provide me with the good things in life.  But what about those who are no better than me and who pray no less fervently than me who are watching their children die of dysentery, who are sold to be sex slaves, who see the drought and the famine come and know there’s not a solitary thing they can do to avoid starving to death along with everyone they know and love?

It’s easy to believe that God intervenes for you when you live a basically happy and fulfilled life.   And yes, I know the typical response: that faith in God is especially important for those who are in the midst of suffering, that it provides them hope, that without it they would simply despair.  But the reality is that most of these people despair anyway.  How can they not?  They are suffering in extremis and are about to die in agony.  Not much to be thankful for.

And even if it’s true that faith might provide them with some solace, that doesn’t make their faith *true* or the God whom they hope will intervene on their behalf *real*.  It is their faith and hope that provides solace, not the divine being who supposedly could help them if he wanted to.  Those of us on the outside observing these deaths – millions and millions of deaths – need ourselves to ask whether there is any reason to think that there is a God who is active in this world.

And I came to think that it was perverse of me to be thankful for all the good things I had – as if God had provided them to me – when I knew full well that millions of people were dying from diseases contracted from not having clean water to drink; and from malaria; and from the lack of just the most basic protections against weather; and from starvation; and from natural disasters; and and and.   If God is the one to be thanked for my good life, who is to be thanked – or rather blamed – for their suffering?  Do I really want to say that it is God who has blessed me?  If so, has he decided to curse the others?   Or am I simply favored because I’m such a nice guy?

I got to a point where I just didn’t believe it any more.  This wasn’t because I was a biblical scholar who knew that the Bible was deeply flawed as a very human book filled with contradictions, discrepancies, and mistakes.  All that was irrelevant.  It also wasn’t because I was a historian of early Christianity who realized that traditional Christian faith developed as the result of historical and cultural forces, not divine guidance, that there was a huge variety of conflicting Christian views in its early years, decades, and centuries, and that what we know of Christianity is more or less the result of historical accident.  That too was irrelevant.

What was relevant was the very heart of the Christian claim that God loves his people, answers their prayers, and intervenes when they are in need.  I came to think there was no such God, and decided that I had no choice but to abandon my faith and leave the Christian tradition.


Was There a “Moment” When I Left the Faith?
Growing into Unbelief

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Comments

  1. Lev
    Lev  August 3, 2017

    Thanks for this fascinating answer into why you left the faith, Bart. This seems to be the clearest explanation yet. I have a question on the interpretation of Christianity you had at the time.

    I’m assuming you held the same view that you expressed in ‘Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium’, where you identify a set of Q sayings of Jesus that predicted those who were poor, hungry and persecuted (i.e. those who suffer) would be blessed in the coming kingdom when the Son of Man arrives on judgement day. “Jesus taught that a day of judgement was coming with the appearance of the Son of Man, who would bring a radical reversal: those who are presently well-off would be condemned and those who are suffering would be blessed.” p.153-154

    This apocalyptic reversal of suffering is most vividly expressed in Rev 21, where John predicts a new world without suffering: “‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.””

    In your previous post, ‘Apocalypticism in a Modern Idiom’ you describe how you believed in a modern version of ancient apocalypticism where suffering was brought about by evil forces: “In my view, at the time, the most attractive option was a modern version of ancient apocalypticism. There are evil forces in the world that are beyond our ability to fathom. And they are wreaking havoc with the human race. These are mysterious forces – not the literal devil and his demons. We simply can’t know what these forces are, where they came from, or why they are here. But they are manifest here – in natural disasters of all kinds, in governments and political policies (think Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge), and even in senseless acts committed by individuals.”

    But then, you seem to have left us hanging with the circle incomplete. You describe the ‘modern version of ancient apocalypticism’, but without the apocalypse bit. You see the evil – but then what? Did you also believe that God would, at a day of future judgement, bring an end to all this evil and suffering? Did you share the belief of John in Revelation, that the “old order of things” would pass away?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      I really didn’t know. I held to an apocalyptic view but I thought it was impossible to say what was really going to happen. And I thought that the accounts in, say, the book of Revelation were highly mythical, not literal descriptions. I was a hard-core biblical scholar, after all, at the time.

      • Lev
        Lev  August 8, 2017

        “I held to an apocalyptic view but I thought it was impossible to say what was really going to happen.”

        Yes, I think it’s very hard for anyone to say with certainty what will really happen in the apocalypse – even Jesus used vague and mystical language.

        However, did you hold to a belief of what would be the general outcome of the apocalypse during your years as a liberal Christian? Did you believe that in the end, God would put an end to all suffering?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 9, 2017

          Yes, I thought in some general sense God would make right all that was wrong. But beyond that fuzzy sense, I didn’t think we had a clue what it would all involve.

          • Lev
            Lev  August 9, 2017

            Thanks Bart.

            So, if I pieced this together correctly: you believed that the suffering experienced in this world would one day be put to an end at the apocalypse, that at the end of days God would intervene and make all things right. However, because of the lack of intervention in this world, the injustices and suffering of innocents found among us, you concluded that an interventionist God did not exist, or if he did, then he was a cruel an immoral God as he was choosing not to intervene.

            I think I’ve seen you argue before that because a world without suffering was predicted to come eventually, then why not start us humans off in that perfect world, rather than have us go through a life of misery and suffering in the imperfect world first. I believe you asked something along the lines of ‘why would God do this? Create a world of suffering – was it some kind of cosmic test?’

            I can appreciate that question – it’s a very good question and one that deserves an answer. Especially as many of those suffering such a test never grow old enough to have the opportunity to pass such a test, and many of those who do are never told of the terms of the test and how to pass it. It does feel unjust and unfair.

            I’m really enjoying the current thread of the development of apocalyptic thought in ancient Israel. Did those in ancient times ever attempt to answer this question?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 10, 2017

            I didn’t think there would be a literal apocalypse. I just thought that in some cosmic sense, God would ultimately resolve the problems and show why they in the end were justified.

          • Lev
            Lev  August 10, 2017

            Would it be fair to say that when you transitioned from an evangelical Christian to a liberal Christian, it was comparable to transitioning from a Pharisee to a Sadducee?

            It seems that you rejected your most supernatural aspects of your faith (the Holy Spirit and a literal apocalypse), much like the Sadducees rejected the Pharisaic belief in angels and a literal resurrection of the dead.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 11, 2017

            I’ve never thought about it like that. It seems like a pretty different situation to me.

          • Lev
            Lev  August 11, 2017

            Perhaps it’s a British thing, but the Church of England has a tradition that whenever their Archbishop of Canterbury retires they switch between the Liberal and Evangelical wings of the Church.

            The liberals are the traditional types, usually heavy on scholarship, sceptical of the supernatural and seen as part of the ‘Sadducee’ establishment. The evangelicals are the what you’d expect, and usually seen as part of the internal and sometimes radical Pharisee grouping.

            I describe myself as a liberal because I reject the inerrancy of scripture and the doctrinal rigidity of evangelicalism, but I still hold to many of the supernatural beliefs usually associated with evangelicalism, such as the power of the Holy Spirit, so I guess I’m a mixed bag – a Phaduccee? A Saddisee? Perhaps I’m stretching the analogy too far?

  2. Avatar
    Luke9733  February 27, 2018

    A Professor at Oxford, John Lennox, raised what I thought was a very good point about the Christian understanding of suffering. The major point that he raised was that, from the Christian perspective, not only was God’s son a human on Earth, but that he actually took active part in the suffering that humans experience by being crucified. It’s an interesting take, and I think one that challenges the idea of God being particularly distant, perhaps even uncaring in regards to the suffering that humans experience. Perhaps the overall message being that sometimes, just as in the case of Jesus, we’re unable to escape from what seems to us to be senseless suffering during our Earthly lives. The Christian view, of course, being that there is still redemption in the end.

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  3. Avatar
    prestonp  July 20, 2018

    What had Jesus done wrong? His Abba father turned His back on Him. Left hanging between the heavens and the earth. Nailed tightly to wood beams. Blood flowing out of His arms, hands, feet, His back, His head, having to watch His mom watch Him all tortured and dying, nothing she could do. Watching her weep and howl. Hanging there, a dirty sweaty raw chunk of shredded flesh, His visage marred more than any man’s.

    But, you left out your own agony and suffering, that killed you daily, day in, day out for an eternity, As a true blue man of kindness and thoughtfulness and self-sacrifice you share your heartfelt anguish over everyone else’s pain and agony and never mention one time the hell that lived in and gripped you. And God was there in that hell with you, every second.

    Have you forgiven God, Bart? Have you forgiven You?

    When you do, when you can let go and you are restored, you will lead the single greatest Christian revival of all time. I thought the coming worldwide renewal would happen as a result of your work independent of your return to the One Who loves you so much. It is becoming fleshed out. You will inspire it and lead it and the breakthroughs worldwide will be something never seen before. You have a great deal of work ahead.

  4. Avatar
    kmohan12  December 3, 2018

    Barty Bear

    This problem you are facing has already been answered by Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Our karma or our works influence the life we have in our next life and in this life. As such, karma is the reason for suffering. If I can get karma on earth in my lifetime and because there is a soul, I can certainly get karma in my next life from whatever body I take be that a human or animal body.

    Please read the Bhagavad Gita as it is 1972 edition and the Srimad Bhagavatam the 1975 edition. All of your religious and spiritual questions will surely be answered in a logical and scientific way. All the best

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2018

      Barty Bear??? Would that any religious book would answer all our questions….

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