This is the seventh part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I still spent years in my teens and twenties looking at all the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could before concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.
One of the key beliefs of Christian apologists is that God will make himself known to anyone who asks him with an open heart. As I mentioned in Part 4, I did plenty of asking during those years, and did my best to keep an open heart despite the difficulties of having a truly open heart towards a being that is supposedly that cavalier about abandoning millions to eternal torture. In response, I got… various stray thoughts that didn’t feel particularly distinguishable from my imagination, and a sense of being vaguely disapproved at for insufficiency, which also might or might not have been my imagination. But there were two occasions when I got something more specific, something I really felt might have been an actual response. So those are the topic of this post.
At this point, it’s worth taking a minute to answer the oft-asked question ‘So what would it take to get you to believe in God?’ At the time I didn’t have a specific answer, and that was entirely deliberate; I didn’t want to lay down narrow conditions for God to fulfil. After all, if – let’s say – I declared I wanted to see a miraculously burning bush before I’d believe in God and instead He decided to materialise in my bedroom to make himself known, what was I going to do; tell him it was the wrong miracle and I wasn’t interested? As far as I was concerned, if I got any sort of sign that couldn’t be plausibly explained as coincidence, natural causes, or imagination then that would be good enough.
I never did. Both of the two occasions I just mentioned were plausibly within the realm of coincidence. But they were the times when I came closest to feeling that I’d had an answer from Someone Out There directing my path. So, for any Christians who are thinking that I should have just prayed and I would have got an answer… here’s what happened, and make of it what you will.
The first one (Or it might have been the second one, for all I know; I remember it clearly, but don’t remember when it happened in relation to anything else.)
I’d read some stories of faithful Christians who sought guidance/answers in times of uncertainty by opening the Bible at random and finding a verse that exactly answered their question. While the stories didn’t quite fit the “can’t be plausibly explained as coincidence” criterion, they did include some pretty cool examples, and I decided it was worth trying.
My brain circling as always with the ‘Is it all true? Do non-Christians really burn in hell? Would you really do that to my father and everyone else like him?’ questions, I asked God if he could try that method of communication with me. I’d make it easier for him by reading the whole of the double page at which it fell open, thus giving him more of a chance to present me with a meaningful verse. (This would also, of course, give coincidence more chance to work, but I figured that if God was actually listening then He would just have to sort that problem out Himself.)
So I opened the Bible, which, this time, was my parents’ copy of the New English Bible with Apocrypha. It opened in the middle of Jeremiah, and at the bottom of the right-hand page was Jeremiah 22:15, which, in this translation, reads thus:
Think of your father; he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He dispensed justice to the lowly and poor;
did not this show he knew me? says the LORD.
And so there you have it. Desperately seeking an answer to my worries about nonbelievers being destined for hellfire, I found a verse that took the specific example of the nonbeliever I knew and loved best and assured me that his fair and just way of living his life was good enough to prove he was all right with God. In other words, I didn’t have to worry that good non-Christians would be condemned just for not being Christian.
I was aware it might be a coincidence, but it was a bloody good one. If there actually was a divine being answering our questions about him by means of flipping a Bible open at the correct page, seemed like He’d done about as clear a job as was possible with this method of communication. I didn’t feel I could quite rely on this to dismiss Christianity, since, logically, it was still possible that God had simply ignored my request and I’d coincidentally got lucky with the quote but in fact Christianity was still true. But this was definitely comforting.
The second one. (Or possibly the first. You get the idea.)
Just for once, I’ve been able to track down exactly when this one was, for reasons which will shortly become clear; April 21st, 1990, when I was almost 21 and in my second year at medical school. But let me backtrack a minute.
At the beginning of that university year, I moved into a house where a pre-existing group of three people already lived, and discovered they were Fundamentalist Christians. You might well be wondering how that houseshare worked out, and the answer is that it was great fun and I had a very good couple of years there. As far as the religious side of it went… well, we got into a lengthy discussion about the topic at an early stage. I can’t remember how, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t trying to convert me, and also pretty sure that I wasn’t trying to convert them, since that’s always been against my principles. I think it just came up in conversation. Unfortunately, I also can’t really remember much about the conversation, except for them telling me uncertainly that they were sure there must be an explanation for the point/question/contradiction I’d just raised but they unfortunately weren’t sure what it could be. I do remember that line because we seemed to get back to it rather often.
(In addition to all the other reading I’d been doing about the topic, I’d just got back from a stay on a kibbutz, in which my room had a copy of the Tanakh (the Jewish scriptures; basically, the Old Testament with the books in a slightly different order from the one Christianity uses, but for obvious reasons not called the Old Testament within Judaism) and in which there wasn’t actually a whole lot else to do once work was finished for the day, so I spent hours reading the earlier books of the Tanakh for want of anything better to do, and hence noticing a whole bunch of contradictions and queries that had escaped either my notice or my memory on previous reads. So, when it came to a conversation with Christians about Christianity and the Bible… yeah, I was on form.)
Anyway, the whole discussion stayed very civil and we ended up on an agree-to-disagree note, but they did noticeably avoid bringing the subject up around me again after that.
However, to get back to the point of this story, on that day I did end up going to church with them. I forget how, but I assume some sort of ‘want to try it just to see?’ invitation must have been involved. (I do remember one time when one of them stammered out “Justwantedtoletyouknowthatthere’sasermonatchurchthisSundayfornonChristianswhowanttocomealongandofcourseifyoudon’twanttoit’s finebutIjustthoughtI’daskyousorry”; poor chap, it was obvious even to someone as clueless as me that he’d been put through some sort of ‘are you not giving your friends the opportunity to participate in eternal life and be Saved?’ guilt trip. But I think that was a different time.)
Anyway, however it happened, there I was at a fundagelical church sermon… with the pastor going full throttle about how unbelievers were doomed to burn in hell. And it was terrifying. I mean, one part of my mind understood perfectly well that it probably wasn’t true and that, of course, he was supposed to say all this stuff and make it convincing… but it really did bring all my ‘What if it’s all true?’ fears to the fore. So, when we got home that evening, I was in a bit of a state over it all.
I was in the living room, still fretting and worrying over it, and somebody had ‘Spitting Image’ on. And it was the episode that ends with God singing this song.
I dearly wish I’d been able to find a video of it online, but apparently ITV blocked it for copyright reasons, which I suppose is fair enough. But you can get the general idea from the lyrics at that link, and actually watching it was even better. I cracked up. I laughed the laugh of someone who’s been desperately stressed over an issue only to be suddenly presented with a genuinely funny twist on it. I felt vastly better. And I concluded that, if God was trying to give me a message, it was clearly “Don’t take it too seriously.”
So, where did this leave me?
Not particularly any further forward, since, after all, it was quite possible that both these events had been complete coincidences. But it was at least comforting to know that a) I’d done my best to ask God open-heartedly for an answer the way I was supposed to and b) if any god out there was trying to give me an answer on the subject, it seemed pretty clearly to be that I didn’t need to be too worried about all this Christianity stuff.
Next up: I finally reach a conclusion.
Your experience with living with extreme Christians was much more benign than mine was. They were always on the verge of hysterics about something-or-other being Satanic. For example; shortly after I moved in, one roommate was going to the little on-campus store for milk. Milk was usually sold out by lunchtime, so I wished her luck. She and the other two recoiled as if I’d thrown acid in her face–according to their faith, wishing people luck was the equivalent of asking Satan to move into their hearts because it meant you didn’t trust in God.
Ah, but despite their fealty to God, they were all drinking underage and sleeping with their boyfriends–DANCING with them would have been completely against their church rules, but having sex with them was okey-dokey! (Drinking was also forbidden in their church, but it was okay when they did it because shut up, that’s why.)
This gave me a good lesson in the hypocrisy of people who claim to be a certain sect of Christian.
I never thought that “asking (or praying) with an open heart” was a fruitful path to knowlege. Back in the days when I truly wondered about this question, an omniscient and omnipotent god would have known I was not just messing about and was sincerely interested in the answer. So, they would either send me a clear affirmative, or they would not, without my having to kneel by the side of my bed and clasp my hands, and all that other folderol traditionally involved in actively praying.
Since I never got an affirmative response, that left only two possibilities that I could see: Either a god did exist, but they wanted me to believe in them strictly through faith without any hard evidence, which is an affront to my enthusiasm for the Scientifc Method, so screw that, OR there is no god.
If I eventually discover that the first possiblity was the actually correct one, I will tell that god that they made my mind require hard evidence, so any displeasure they have in the choice I have made is their own damn fault.
The God of the Tanach and the New Testament was very visible, with all the cursing and smiting and speaking directly to people. Interesting that all that’s stopped.
I’m enjoying your series. Thank you for making the effort to set it out so rigorously. Your story is similar to mine but I didn’t work as hard as you. I became a practicing Catholic for many years, but even at my most hopeful there were many parts of the religion that I couldn’t accept. I was willing to assume that they might be right even though I couldn’t understand. And I met many wonderful faith-filled people, and found some much less wonderful.
I’ve never been afraid of eternal damnation, nor did I look forward to Heaven, because it just seemed so illogical. There are so many contradicting detailed sets of instructions, sincerely held by millions, that would send everyone but them to Hell, and outside of their special old books and some preachers, there was no evidence for them. I could also see the sociological reasons why these threats and promises would maintain social cohesion (and the preachers in power).
I have had some things that at the time I thought were signs from God, but as I’ve become more aware of the fallibility of my own mind, they no longer convince me. I still miss them, but I’m better off with a rational view of the world.
Keep up the good work.
Pierce R. Butler says
A consistently self-contradicting god – where is Terry Pratchett when we need him?
” I didn’t have to worry that good non-Christians would be condemned just for not being Christian.”
The basis for condemnation is incompatibility.
The death and resurrection of Jesus/gospel narratives is the most attested event in ancient according to the vast majority of new testament scholars. so Chrisitianity is the only religion that can be historically/academically verified as it is the only religion which claims its God came into human history, which has been validated historically in Jesus. no other religion has that
God does not doom you to hell. You, yes you, have decided to not want Him. so YOU get YOUR wish. this is all on you. Don’t blame God. thanks
Dr Sarah says
@jc1432, #7: Hi! Thanks for posting.
I think you might be conflating two different apologetics claims. The claim about the vast majority of NT scholars agreeing actually comes from something known as the ‘minimal facts’ claim, by apologist Gary Habermas; what Habermas says is that there are some basic facts that the vast majority of NT scholars agree on. This is quite true, but not actually very helpful, as the facts are just things like ‘Jesus died through crucifixion’ and ‘Jesus’s disciples genuinely believed he’d risen from the dead’. (Also, it’s worth remembering that a large percentage of NT scholars work for overtly Christian universities who are only willing to employ committed Christians in those roles, so that does skew the figures; we’re not talking about a situation where a group of entirely impartial people were all collectively convinced of this point by weighing up the evidence.)
As for the claim that Jesus’s death/resurrection is the most attested event in ancient times, I don’t believe that that’s supported by ‘the vast majority’ of NT scholars. In any case, it’s drastically wrong. There are plenty of events from ancient times for which we have eyewitness reports, and/or reports from historians who drew on eyewitness reports, and/or physical evidence such as inscriptions or coins commemorating events. In the case of the stories of Jesus’s death and resurrection, we’ve got letters from someone who definitely wasn’t involved with Jesus or his followers during Jesus’s life, and anonymous reports from years or decades later based on unknown sources of unknown veracity. I believe we have enough evidence to say that, yes, a rabbi by the name of Yeshua was crucified by the Romans and that his followers rapidly came to believe he was still alive (although I don’t believe that that would have required him to actually be still alive), but these are very far from ‘the most attested’ of events.
Well, we can historically validate that Jesus almost certainly existed, and that at some point some of his followers started thinking he was God and this became the predominant belief among his followers. However, we can’t validate the claim that he actually was God.
Dr Sarah says
@jc1432, #8 (also, this covers the point made by txpiper, #6):
I don’t know your personal views on what hell is and I do accept such things vary, but the NT teachings about hell are that it involves eternal fiery torture. My concern was therefore about the claim that everyone who wasn’t Christian was doomed to eternal torture as the only available alternative. I’m curious as to whether you think that’s justifiable?
By the way, I’m also curious as to whether you think faithful Jews, Moslems and Sikhs go to heaven or to hell? After all, they also believe in and follow God.
Dr Sarah says
Ah, but it’s the UK. We have a milder variety of fundamentalist. 🙂
Yup. Looking back, there are definitely interesting implications of the absence of a god speaking this clearly to people. I mean, theoretically it’s possible that there exists a god who doesn’t speak clearly to people… but that doesn’t fit with the Christian concept of God.
just a dude says
‘ it is the only religion which claims its God came into human history’
There are LOADS of religions that claim to have their god (or god-like entity) existed within human history. Look at the Romans and Egyptians when human rulers get worshiped as gods. Look at Buddhism (the crazier variants that think Buddha had superpowers rather than just a nifty idea, I mean).
There was this one emperor who was super duper sad his gay lover died, so he deified him on his death.
Fuck, look at modern North Korea.
This is just a statement of such appalling ignorance, fixable by the most bare bones research effort, that I don’t see how anyone should take anything said by this person seriously, as they clearly can’t be bothered to research or think through their claims.