I’ve struggled with theology since High School. I was trying to be a Christian for the last three years (attending church, praying daily, etc), but after reading a few verses together about 9 months ago, I wasn’t sure I could continue to believe. I’m asking because sometimes, the Church has answers to questions, but we aren’t aware of the existence of the answer.
My problem is the following:
It seems that the existence of God is predicated on our moral intuitions. We see evil in the world, and know it to be evil based upon this intuition. It is through this intuition that we can reason that there must also be objective good in this world, including a greatest possible good which exists. According to scripture — or at least to Anselm, Aquinas, and Lewis — that highest good, or goodness itself, is God.
But some parts of the doctrine of the church seem to defy the trustworthiness of our moral intuition. Jesus says that we must hate our family (Matt 10:34-36, Luke 14:26), and that we must also love our enemies (Matt 5:43-47). Each of these alone seems morally counter-intuitive, but together, seem morally perverse. Even if there is some explanation which could demonstrate that loving one’s enemies and hating one’s family was good, it would prove my moral intuitions to be so unreliable that the evil I see in the world would be no basis for believing in the divine in the first place, since “evil” is a moral judgment. They might just be “bad,” or merely neutral events which happen sequentially. No highest “good” would be conceivable because there would be no “good,” and there would be no reason to assume or believe in a good God, or a God at all.
If Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit are assumed to exist based upon our moral intuitions, and if my moral intuitions say that (some of) his teachings are evil, how might I justify having belief? I certainly want to believe if it’s true, but I don’t want to believe if it isn’t true (1 Cor 15:14), and I cannot see how to maintain justified faith in the face of this incongruency.
To which the pastor responded:
Thanks for writing TTAP.
I can understand your dilemma, especially given the premise that you are approaching Christianity, the Bible and ultimately God with.
In order to make any sense 0of Christianity you are going to have to approach it differently. I think you want to, since you have written to a pastor looking for answers. The big question is can you lay down your premise long enough to consider the issue from a totally different angle.
Someone has said, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” Short version – you won’t find different answers with the same approach. So what should the approach be? I am glad you asked.
Where did your “moral intuition” come from? Is it not based on the ten commandments? And where did the ten commandments come from? I happen to live in a the South Pacific where centuries of tribalism, tribal warfare, head hunting and cannibalism and a total lack of Christian moral influence (until the last 100 years) still greatly impacts the nation. The “moral intuition” you suggest was not there in these tribal people. Multiple wives, not wearing clothes, eating other people, killing anyone who didn’t have their face painted the same way as yours, was not “immoral” to these people for centuries before Christianity was introduced. Now that it has been and has taken root the country is slowly changing although many of these issue still exist in the culture. (While it is no longer a widespread practice, it it is thought that Papua New Guinea is the last place on earth where ritualistic cannibalism is still practiced). Multiple wives, beating your woman, adultery, murder etc. are still very prominent. In fact it is not uncommon for the witnesses to a auto accident to pull the people out of the cars and beat them – sometimes to death – at the scene of the accident before the police can get there. Moral intuition is learned from a Christian-influenced society, it is not natural to mankind. To conclude this point, I would simply say, do you have to teach a child to lie or teach him to tell the truth? Steal or be honest? Point proved.
Second, you starting point is wrong in two places. You start with YOUR Moral intuition. Trying to understand an infinite God with a finite understanding and experience is, to say the least, a bit presumptuous. The book of Hebrews gives us an important piece of information you need to begin. Hebrews 11:6 gives us the basis for approaching and understanding God. It says, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him (God), for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”
First youmust Believer HE IS. This means you have to To really know God – and to understand him to whatever degree we can – a persona has to stop making god into their own image. In other wards, you can’t make God be what you want him to be, He IS what He IS and the first requirement is to accept that and deal with it. That doesn’t mean you totally understand or even like what you initially think God is like. It means you accept what He says and then get to know Him. The longer you walk with God the more you know and understand HIM and many of the questions and seeming contradictions start to resolve.
The second thing that is required as a starting place with God is believing that He is a rewarder of those that seek HIM. Not those who try to be a Christian, but those who seek to know Him personally. While God has revealed Himself through the Chrsitian faith, trying to act like and believe like a Christian without a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ is futile and not what God wants. Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father but through me.” If you can’t except that statement, then you need to chuck the Bible and stop even trying to get Christianity to make sense. Either Jesus spoke the truth or He was a delusional lunatic with a religious fixation and God complex. He can not just be a good moral teacher. He is either who he claimed to be or he is a deceiver, and therefore not worth listening to in any way shape or form. Settle that issue first.
God says he will reward us for seeking him. Those two things are the basis of genuine Christian faith.
Those (like yourself) you try to approach God from a reasoning or moral basis miss an important point. The rational/philosophical approach says, “If I can understand it, then I will believe it.” While humans love this approach, it is not the only one – or even the most valid one. In fact the Bible says exactly the opposite, once again in the book of Hebrews. “By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen hath not been made out of things which appear.” Hebrews 11:3
Notice the rational approach says, I understand before I will believe. The faith approach says, If I believe I will come to understand. This is why so many people struggle with the Bible. They take the totally wrong approach. Remember Hebrews 11:6 said, “without faith it is impossible to please God.” FAith is not bind, but it is not rooted in human rationality either. The Bible tells us in romans 9, So faith come to us by hearing God’s word. The more you really hear what the Bible says (not what unbelievers say the bible says) you will grow in genuine faith. You will never grow in faith and thus never please God in other way.
The third thing in which needs to change in your approach is that the entire Christian concept is primarily concerned with morality. It is not. I understand how you come to this conclusion, because the majority of that which calls itself the church focuses on morality as the main issue of Christianity. While morality is important, spirituality is the main issue – a relationship with God. It is not moral people who go to heaven, it is spiritual people who go to heaven.
I wrote a very short article entitled “Don’t Go to Hell for Something You Didn’t Do.” It takes a novel (although biblical) approach to the “salvation message” typically presented by the evangelical church. My reason for doing this is to reach people who have heard the traditional message and needs to see it from a different angle. You can read it free here http://talktoapastor.com/dontgotohell.htm
Please read this short article and write back with questions (which I am sure you will have.)
I could answer a lot more, but I think this is enough for one email. The key things is that you will never reach the correct answer starting with the wrong question. I trust you are willing to look at this issue from a totally different perspective. Your eternal soul is too valuable to lose without examining some different perspectives.
Now a prayer for you.
Father I bring Christopher to you in Jesus’ name. I ask that you speak to him and reveal yourself to him in a way he can know and understand it is you. Help hi to set aside his preformed premises and look at these issues from a different perspective. Help him. He really wants this to make sense – and it an to some degree – if he will accept your revelation of yourself and allow that revelation to speak to him. Guide him and protect him along the next section of his spiritual journey. Thanks god for being a God that rewards us for seeking you. You are not against us. you are for us and will give us everything we need to relate to you, worship you and serve you in the Spirit of God. AMEN!
Well Christopher, I trust this challanges you to a new search in your quest for understanding Christianity and God Himself. Please feel free to reply to this message with questions or comments.
Pastor [redacted] and his wife [redacted] serve as Foursquare missionaries in Papua New Guinea. Steve has a doctorate in Pastoral Theology and is a Certified Christian Counselor.
To which I responded:
Thank you for your swift and thorough response.
I think I understand your point that our relationship with God is about having the relationship, and not about being “good people” as conventionally defined. If I understand you correctly, trying to judge God as being “good” or “evil” is not just morally presumptuous (voice from the whirlwind), but epistemologically presumptuous; we’d hardly know what was good if we saw it, without God.
I see your point about the ubiquity of Christian ethics in Western culture–however, to your point about our individual moral intuitions: how am I to say — when asked — that it is better to be compassionate, forgiving, and merciful than to be violent, vengeful, proud, and tribal? After all, there may be a kind of joy in combat, even in a glorious death in battle. This kind of argument seems to imply a sort of moral relativism, that we would have no instinct for good or bad without God’s directive. Anselm’s, Aquinas’s, and C.S. Lewis’s arguments for the existence of God would be destroyed by such a position, since a universal sense of goodness (and conversely, evil) among believers and non-believers alike could not exist.
You seem to be arguing for a kind of presuppositionalism, of beginning with the assumption that there is a God, which would be necessary to have the relationship you allude to. But it is not God’s morals, but his existence, which troubles me; the morality is, really, only relevant insofar as it pertains to whether or not I can see him, through reason if not through personal experience (I know people who have said they met Jesus, others who say that they have met Odin, and one who claims to have met both; I can’t make any such claims personally).
My understanding of Faith was as a kind of perseverance, of staying the course, even when you can’t see, and trusting in one’s decisions soberly made in the past even when one feels doubtful or hopeless. Faith, as I understood it, was never just a boot-strap for beginning belief, contrary to reason and observation. I am under no illusion that reason is sufficient, but it seems a necessary condition (Paul’s statement about faith being in vain if Jesus was not who he says he was rings true here; I do not want to have faith “in vain,” and so I do not want to have faith if the belief is not true).
It’s been a little over a month now since I sent my response, and I haven’t received a second answer, so I will assume the conversation is more or less terminated. It is important to point out that the reason for the termination was not that I PWND! him or anything; the site seems to be set up primarily for people who are fairly new to the faith and want to learn more, or want answers to specific but more common questions among believers. It’s not a debate site, so although I think it was a legitimate question, it’s not proof of the success of the argument, simply because he did not respond.
Overall, I thought the pastor’s response was fairly intelligent, though I think it ultimately fails for the reasons I laid out in my response. The moralistic arguments that Christians make for the moral superiority of Christianity often require us to accept a Christian ethic… which they say we would not hold without Christianity. The circularity is lethal. The appeal to the mystery of God, or to God as the source of morality, fails, for it either undermines the ontological argument for God’s existence, or the moral-intuitive appeal to the superiority of Christian life.
I am sure this is not the only possible answer to the dis-ontological argument, but it seems to be the first response as well as the most common, and it fits with my own reading of scripture and theology.
If any Christians have an answer to the dis-ontological argument, feel free to post in the comments.