But could a God like that be good? (Part 1)
The fiercest and most common objections I hear about Christianity aren’t scientific or historical but moral.
Millions of dollars are spent on faith-based training programs trying to argue that the Bible wields academic heft in a post-Enlightenment world, but the real crux of modern atheism doesn’t quiver before the intellectual force of the Scriptures.
Very simply, most atheists don’t like the God of the Bible because they think he isn’t moral. They think God is narcissistic, savage, inconsistent, moody, sexist, racist, and primitive.
I’ve met few Christians who are able to empathize and engage with this barrier. They shake their heads and say that atheists “just don’t get it.” They slap on a platitude. But for the most part, Christians aren’t sure how to respond to the argument that if the God of the Bible is real, he’s not the sort of leader modern humans should trust.
God has allowed this barrier to impact people I love deeply, so I’ve not been able to dismiss it like some Christians. Even if I apply childlike trust to my own faith, my heart still reaches back to plead for those who cannot believe so easily. The Lord has kept me in a strange and difficult place—a place of loving him while also understanding why friends are angry about how they perceive God.
So, I want to try to talk about this issue with respect for those who disagree with me. I want to try to explain why (at least some) atheists have such a hard time wanting to engage with the God of the Bible. And I also want to share a couple of thoughts about how I’ve processed their honest apprehensions.
1. Atheists believe the the God of the Bible is inhumane.
They have heard bits and pieces of the Old Testament— verses about mass slaughter, the stoning of homosexuals, and punishing women who were raped. They have read verses that condone slavery and advocate for treating females unequally.
While Christians tend to say, “But that was the Old Testament!” it’s very difficult for someone who isn’t all that familiar with the Bible to see how 1300 years of the Mosaic Law fit into a larger narrative context. To someone who doesn’t understand how many years the Bible actually spans, or what the different covenants communicated, the words of Deuteronomy and Galatians seem to hold equal weight.
2. Christianity has lost cred because of misapplications of the Bible.
If atheists are confused about Biblical interpretation, they have good reason. Over the centuries, a great many so-called Christians have yanked random verses out of context to try to gain cultural power. Biblical verses have been misapplied to support American slavery, the abuse of women and children, wicked political leaders, and cruelty toward the desperate. Just as satan used the Scripture during Christ’s temptation in the desert, wicked men have quoted the Bible while promoting darkness.
Before we get all defensive about this and say, “Yeah, but those teachers weren’t legit!” we need to think seriously about how trust works. Aristotle taught that ethos (personal credibility) was far more persuasive than logos (facts) or pathos (emotions). Jesus taught something similar when he explained that bad fruit falls from a bad tree.
To ask people to immediately embrace a belief system that (in their view) has proven cruel is unrealistic. Jesus warned us about the impact of false religion, and our society is now facing the consequences he told us would come. Grave damage has been done, and it’s probably going to take a lot of time in the company of real faith to even begin to repair those wounds.
People who have been deeply disappointed in religion need to test the waters, need to push on the walls, need to shake the foundations. That’s not just because those people are weak—it’s because they’ve been exposed to a false version of Christianity that hasn’t held to its core.
3. Even the New Testament can be morally confusing to the modern reader. It would be different if every baffling verse were packed away in the pre-Christ books, but even in the epistles, we find passages that provoke the modern, humanistic conscience. Beautiful commands to feed the poor, die to self, and serve the weak are juxtaposed alongside commands for women to keep silent in the churches and for slaves to obey their masters.
Concepts like predestination and hell feel profoundly unjust. Atheists ask, “How could a mortal resist the plan of God? And why should a soul face eternal consequences for a temporary choice?”
4. Perhaps even more offensive than all of these things is God’s determination to require faith of a society that worships empirical proofs. Modern America doesn’t build temples to gods made of wood and stone, but we have idolized an epistemology built upon the reliability of human perception. Despite the inability of empirical science to provide primary proofs—despite its ultimate reliance upon presuppositions built upon blind faith, a weakness even the founders of empiricism openly acknowledged—modern academia feels no qualms about demanding secondary proofs. Any deity who fails to jump through these hoops is deemed a bad sport.
I believe the Bible is true, and I believe that God is good. But I also understand why questions like these catch in the throats of the atheists of my time.
It’s hard for me to write this next bit, but I also think it’s pretty important. Sometimes what’s called “faith” is really just a lack of empathy.
I don’t mean that everybody needs to become a melancholy, cynical doubter. Not everyone is wired like that. But a lot of people who call themselves Christians aren't just pragmatic--they are fundamentally selfish about their own faith.
They have checked off the salvation box, and those who haven’t don't really keep them up nights. Once they’ve signed the dotted line on their own fire insurance, they move on to accumulate as much wealth and happiness on this planet as they can, huddling in groups with people who agree with them, and not caring all that much who makes it out with them in the end.
The politicization of the American church has exacerbated this problem. The we/them mentality has helped us divide the world into good guys and bad guys. If we are honest, a lot of Christians are truly more concerned about LGBTQ rights than they are about LGBTQ souls. A lot of Christians are truly more concerned about protecting the free market than they are about helping the poor. A lot of Christians are truly more passionate about proving their liberal family members wrong online than they are about where those family members will spend eternity.
Empathy doesn’t alter what the Bible teaches about holiness. Compassion doesn’t turn us into moral relativists. But these traits can expose our idols and show us that sometimes we have minor gods standing between us and the Pearl of Great price. Sometimes we think we are worshipping Jesus when really we are just trying to save our own skins.
I’m writing this post as a political conservative and as an orthodox Christian. I hold to old creeds and confessions and to inerrancy. Making room to care about the questions I see atheists asking hasn’t undermined my faith in Jesus.
The church is spending so much energy trying to convince the unbelieving world that the Scriptures are true, but perhaps the church needs to talk less about this and more about real heart of the matter--how the unconventional God of the Bible could possibly be good.
I’ll try to spend some time over the next few weeks unpacking my thoughts on that. For now, this post is too long already.