Friday, July 26, 2013

10 Questions to Ask Your Pastor?

From the April 2010 E-Block.


Even as we are now in the midst of a dialogue with Jason Berggren on the 10 Things he hates about Christianity, we were asked to examine another decalogue making the rounds at present, a list of "10 Questions to Ask Your Pastor." Apparently these are meant to be stumpers that the average pastor won't be able to take care of, which unfortunately, is probably true. 

However, as usual, such lists as produced by atheists are the sort that could never be renamed, "10 Questions to Ask a Christian Apologist/Biblical Scholar," because from start to finish, there are problems inherent in each question. Since this is, as we said, making the rounds today, we thought it might be useful to have an answer key -- and also since it provides us the chance to comment on the nature of the implied tactic of stumping a pastor with questions like these.

1. Why is God called loving or merciful when, in the Old Testament's stories of the Israelite conquest, he specifically orders his chosen people to massacre their enemies, showing no mercy to men, women, even children and animals?

The immediate and obvious flaw in this question is that it begins with a thoroughly anachronistic definition of both "love" and "mercy" as meaning some sort of sentimentality that does no harm to anyone. As we have seen elsewhere, love relates to a concern for the greater good; to claim a problem here, critics must compose a full-fledged philosophical and moral analysis (as Miller has here, in our favor) showing that God was "unloving" in this sense, and that it did not serve the greater good for any particular persons to be killed. Of course, the analysis must also account for the moral and ethical priorities of the persons involved (e.g., agonistic persons who would prefer swift death to life after what they would see as humiliating defeat, which will not be answered by imperialistically imposing our own values on their cultural values).

By the same token, "mercy" is not a refusal to punish, but has to do with gratitude, and in turn in this context, fulfillment of covenant obligations (see here). As such it has absolutely no relevance to times when Israel "massacred" others. These others had no covenant obligations to or from God at the time.

2. Does it make sense to claim, as the Bible does, that wrongdoing can be forgiven by magically transferring the blame from a guilty person to an innocent one, then punishing the innocent person?

On this issue, please see the November 2009 E-Block article, "The Atonement Contextualized." It is enough to say here that this description hardly suffices to represent the mechanics of atonement theory, which involved principles of patronage and identity that are not even addressed by this rather childish question.

3. Why does the Bible routinely depict God as manifesting himself in dramatic, unmistakable ways and performing obvious miracles even before the eyes of nonbelievers, when no such thing happens in the world today?

The problem word here is "routinely". As I have told many critics, if they were to count the number of years in the Bible, then count the number of miracles done in the Bible, and also factor in the total number of people exposed to these miracles (correlating to the total world population in the timeframes referenced), they would arrive at an average that would reflect anything but a "routine" expression of God in miraculous, and if anything, indicate that such manifestations were exceptionally rare, given to a very small number of people in relative terms, and isolated to specific "flashpoints" in history. Thus the basis for the question is incorrect to begin with. We are given very rare, very infrequent experiences such as these, and that is exactly in line with our experiences today.

4. Why do vast numbers of Christians still believe in the imminent end of the world when the New Testament states clearly that the apocalypse was supposed to happen 2,000 years ago, during the lifetime of Jesus' contemporaries?

Here of course my own answer is that what was supposed to happen 2000 years ago, did indeed happen. As yet, critics are still struggling to understand preterism, much less refute it.

5. Why do Christians believe in the soul when neurology has found clear evidence that the sense of identity and personality can be altered by physical changes to the brain?

Within this simple question there are a host of unstated assumptions about the nature of the evidence provided by neurology and how to interpret it. I am not an expert in neurology, but neither, very likely, is the person who first formulated this question. The debate over the existence of the soul cannot be settled with sound bites. At the same time, it seems rather despicable to suppose that this is a worthy question to ask a pastor, as opposed to (say) a physician, or a philosopher. Other questions here are at least in the general range of what a pastor should be able to answer, having to do with Biblical interpretation. Asking a pastor questions about metaphysics to this level, and expecting credible results, is simply irresponsible.

6. If it was always God's plan to provide salvation through Jesus, why didn't he send Jesus from the very beginning, instead of confusing and misleading generations of people by setting up a religion called Judaism which he knew in advance would prove to be inadequate?

Once again, a host of unstated assumptions inhabit the query. First, why and how is it assumed that sending Jesus "from the very beginning" would have been less confusing, less misleading, or more productive then sending Jesus at the time he was sent? Has the author of this question composed a detailed analysis of multiple chronological timelines to show that this was the case? I am obviously being facetious, for the point is that it requires omniscience to make this sort of statement with any authority.

Second, from whence comes the idea that Judaism "confused" and "misled" anyone? Who was confused or misled? What is the evidence that if they were indeed confused or misled, the fault was God's and not theirs?

Third, there is no justification for the idea that Judaism was "inadequate". For one thing, this begs the question of what purpose it served: The first covenant was, as Paul puts it in Galatians, a sort of overseer or monitor that prepared the way for the second one. This in turn leads back to the first point: If it is asked why God did not introduce Jesus "from the beginning" then it seems natural to suggest that the first covenant prepared the way for the second one, bringing about circumstances that would result in maximum benefit. In that paradigm, the first covenant allowed for the creation of circumstances within which the second one would be most effective.

The critic may deride this as merely speculative, but let us remember that it is they who began by saying that history, as it stood, was imperfectly constructed by God, so it is they who were the first to "speculate".

7. Since the Bible states that God does not desire that anyone perish, but also states that the majority of humankind is going to hell, doesn't this show that God's plan of salvation is a failure even by his own standard? If this outcome is a success, what would count as a failure?

The primary erroneous premise here is where it is claimed that the Bible "states that the majority of humankind is going to hell..." That is found nowhere in text; some have suggested that it is found in Jesus' "narrow way" teaching, but that reflects Jewish teachings about decisions made all through life, not final soteriological decisions.

In fact, given the premise of the salvation of infants and young children (which is Biblically supportable), and the high prevalance of child mortality in history, the vast majority of humankind is not going to hell. And even outside that group, it is far from clear that a majority is condemned; if so, that must be proven, not merely stated.

8. Why didn't God create human beings such that they freely desire to do good, thus removing the need to create a Hell at all? (If you believe this is impossible, isn't this the state that will exist in Heaven?)

The answer to the last question is essentially no. The persons in heaven are not "created" to freely desire to do good; what creates that circumstance is the combination of the renovation of person (in resurrection) plus their realizations acquired through past experiences in a sinful world. So once again, the question is misdirected.

9. Is it fair or rational for God to hide himself so that he can only be known by faith, then insist that every single human being find him by picking the right one out of thousands of conflicting and incompatible religions?

Once again misdirections abound; it is hard to know how "faith" is being defined here, but it is not the correct definition. At the same time, while there may be "thousands" of religions, all of them together run down to a mere handful of variations put into slightly different combinations. It simply is not that hard to apply one's self to the key questions.

10. If you had the power to help all people who are suffering or in need, at no cost or effort to yourself, would you do it? If so, why hasn't God done this already?

The answer to the first question is no -- because the category of "all people who are suffering or in need" is too broad and is inclusive of persons such as, "those who are in need because they are irresposnible," such that "helping" does little but enable them in their own self-inflicted hardships. Second, God has helped such people already by giving them the minds and the resources to stay out of suffering and need, and to solve it when it does occur. Finally, there is no reason to expect God to so help those who constantly violate His commands, essentially saying to Him, "I don't want your rules" -- yet they also want His aid? Isn't that what we call "ingratitude"?

Of course, my answer here is very simple, but that is fair, because the question itself is a far too simple assertion that evil is an unsolvable problem -- never mind that far greater minds have worked on this issue, so that it is again irresponsible to suggest that someone ought to pose this sort of question to a local pastor!

And now a few observations in close.

The suggestion of the author of this list is that these questions ought to be taken to one's local pastor (or priest, or what have you) not with the intention of solving these questions, but with the presumed knowledge that they will not be able to answer them. Presumably, the compiler supposes that pastors and such are in possession of enough free time -- having been freed of their normal daily burden of counseling the hurting, or overseeing ministerial needs, or planning sermons, that they are able to spare the time for extensive research and commentary, even on non-Biblical questions well outside their purview.

I have said many times that I do think pastors ought to be able to answer these sorts of questions (at least, the ones concerning doctrine), but a less-frequently stated corollary of mine is that pastors are called on to do far too many things they should not be doing -- which includes counseling.

Under the circumstances, as has been stated more than once, the presentation of lists like these is the height of irresponsibility. Why not suggest that the person ask a scholar or an apologist rather than a pastor? Indeed, why just present the questions as they are; why not do a little of one's legwork first?

The obvious answer is that lists like these are not presented in good faith.

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