Why I Became An Agnostic

sent in by Steve

It may be considered ironic that what eventually led me to my present agnosticism was a study of theology. It all began about nine years ago when I was a delivery truck. My route took me to an area where I was able to pick up a Christian radio station. I began to listen, especially to this one particular radio evangelist who didn't really preach sermons, but rather had more of a lecture format in which he discussed many theological issues. I was intrigued by his knowledge and style of presentation. He really "dug deep" into many theological issues.

One week he was doing a series on predestination. I had thought about this issue before, but it was presented by this evangelist with such depth and clarity that I began to think more about the issue and it's implications. Now, I should mention that this evangelist came from a Protestant tradition quite different from my own. His tradition was strongly Calvinistic and put a very heavy emphasis on the sovereignty of God. For one week he presented a very well articulated and persuasive argument for the theory that God in his infinite wisdom had predestined some to eternal life, and many to eternal damnation in hell.

Far beyond the issue of predestination, I began to think a lot about the sovereignty of God and his control over all things. I began to purchase books on the subject and even obtained a library card to a local theological seminary so I could loan out books on theological issues. Well, for me a natural corollary of my study of God's sovereignty, was the problem of evil. How can the existence of evil be explained and understood within the context of the sovereign control of a loving, all-powerful God?

I know this is by no means a new issue. It has in fact bewildered and fascinated philosophers and theologians for centuries and has been one of the most powerful and persuasive arguments against theism. But for me, this was indeed a new discovery. Not that I didn't acknowledge the existence of evil before this time or that I didn't take it seriously. The fact was, I had just never really pondered it that much. I accepted the teaching of the church that evil was the result of Adam's fall in the garden and pretty much left it at that. However, once I really began to think seriously about it, I began to have many questions. If evil is the result of Adam's fall, how is that evil transferred to the rest of mankind? If God's creation was perfect before the fall, how could a fall from perfection even be a possibility? I also realized that evil cannot be the fault of mankind, because it actually originated with the tempter, the serpent of the garden, who according to the Bible is Satan.

Now, according to the Bible, Satan was once Lucifer, a high-ranking angel who fell and was banished from the splendor of Heaven along with many other angels who fell with him. Unless this is to be understood mythologically, the idea of a fall in Heaven is very problematic indeed. Why would God allow Satan and his demons access to earth and put his beloved creation at risk? For a common human to put his children at risk in this way is irresponsible. For an all-knowing, all-powerful being, who according to scripture knew the outcome beforehand, it seems downright insane. So why did God put the "chickens in a fox's den" if you will? To test us? A test seems meaningless to someone who already knows the final outcome. The question still remains, what is evil's etiology? It predates the creation of man and thus the fault for its existence cannot be laid at man's feet. At best, he is responsible for perpetuating it.

I have since read many books on theodicy, the area of theology that investigates the problem of evil, and have spoken with pastors and even a professor of systematic theology. To this day, I haven't found a satisfying answer within the context of traditional, orthodox theism. Evil can be separated into different types. There is moral evil and what many call natural evil. In my opinion, moral evil is the easier of the two to explain and still hold the belief in God's sovereignty, however still without some serious questions. Natural evil is the "thorn in the side" that I find more difficult to square with the idea of a loving, all-powerful God.

Moral evil in my understanding is basically the result of man exercising his free will in ways detrimental to his fellow man or environment. The blame for this evil could be removed from God responsibility with at least fewer difficulties than natural evil. Most theists and Christians acknowledge that humans have free will, with the possible exception of the Calvinist camp, who while not denying free will to humans, have developed elaborate philosophical arguments to explain how free will is still compatible with a very strict interpretation of God's sovereignty. Most Christians today, however, have adopted a more relaxed view of God's sovereignty that allows more room for human free action in the shaping and destiny of creation. However, most Christians and theists, with the exception of process and open theists, still hold the belief in God's foreknowledge of future events, including man's "free" choices. This results in many complex questions about the meaning and limits of free will, and also put God back in the "hot seat" as being at least complicit in moral evil's existence and perpetuation by virtue of his knowledge and allowance of it beforehand.

Natural evil is much more difficult to explain and justify in a traditional theistic context because it cannot be logically explained by human free will. Examples include such natural disasters as earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, etc. Most diseases and both human and animal pain are included in this category of evil. How can there be so much pain and suffering in a world created and pronounced "good" by a loving God? If you accept the Augustinian view that the garden was a perfect paradise and that pain and even death were introduced into creation by the fall of Adam, it is very difficult to consider God as either loving or good. If natural evils are just an ongoing punishment for the sin of a distant ancestor. One of the most used metaphors used in the Bible for God is that he is a loving father, who loves his children more than any human father could. That begs the question: what earthly father would subject his progeny to the kind of pain that our "heavenly father" does and not be locked up in an institution never to see his children again? Is it simply a question of "might makes right"? Well, maybe some can accept that, but it seems a little below the dignity that most theists would ascribe to their heavenly father.

Now let's touch on the area of eschatology, the final destination of humanity. Many Christians still believe that those who do not accept Christ as their personal savior (what does that really mean anyway)? will die in their sins and spend eternity suffering in hell. Fortunately this abhorrent belief is becoming an embarrassment to many thinking Christians today. It should be permanently assigned to the "dust heap of dogmatics." This particular item of Christian dogma is just fraught with difficulties. First and foremost in my opinion, how can anyone in an average lifetime commit such atrocities that would warrant eternal punishment? And why would a person who lead a relatively good life and never committed any crimes, but for whatever reason, did not or could not become a Christian, be consigned to the same eternal fate as a Hitler or Pol Pot? I know that many Christians believe there are "levels" of punishment in hell and that the "average" sinner and Hitler's punishment would vary in intensity though not in duration. The problem with the idea of levels of punishment in hell is that it is more reminiscent of Dante' than scripture. We cannot ignore the original question however: how can eternal punishment be justified by any earthly action committed? It makes me question the nature of God's love. Again, I hearken back to the heavenly father image and compare that "greater" love to the love of an earthly father. I'm a father myself and I could not imagine allowing my son to suffer eternally for any bad action or series of bad actions he has done.

Hell, as it is taught in most Christian theology, serves no other purpose than to punish for punishment's sake. Because it is eternal, it serves no redemptive purpose. As a father, I understand that punishment is often necessary. But it's purpose is corrective and often retributive. Punishment is a learning tool used to guide people in the proper direction in order to function as productive members of human society. It does have a punitive nature as well, but that is still for the purpose of discouraging one from making the same mistake again as well as offering closure and a sense of justice to the offended. Hell, as it is usually understood, serves none of the above, again because it is eternal.

The doctrine of eternal punishment owes much of it's structure to St. Anselm (1033-1109). He lived in a feudal society where the intensity and duration of the punishment was based more on who the offended party was than on the offense itself. A crime against a fellow serf was not punishable to the extent that a crime against the lord and so on. It was a hierarchal system in which the most severe punishment was for an offense against a king. The logic of St. Anselm's idea that an offense against an eternal being, namely God, requires an eternal punishment is quite evident and even understandable within the context of the time he lived and with the general occidental mindset. But, does it square with the concept of a loving God? Furthermore, how can the scriptural teaching be fulfilled that God will finally overcome evil with good and be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28) if there exists an eternal dualism between heaven and hell? Finally, how can heaven be a place of eternal happiness and peace for humans when some of those we love are simultaneously enduring excruciating torture in hell? Will God wipe our memories clean of those who we've lost to the tortures of hell and if so, how can that be done without changing so much of who we are? For example, if I'm in heaven, but my father is in hell, how can the memory of my father be erased from my mind without also erasing all that my father has taught me about being a good person and the loving influence he had in shaping who I am? Our memories and the people in our lives, especially in our formative years, play such a major role in shaping our personalities that to delete those memories cannot be done without literally changing our identities. So, it seems untenable to believe our identities can be retained if our memories of loved ones in hell were to be divinely erased.

I've included eternal punishment in this brief discussion of evil and it's influence on my move to agnosticism because, in my opinion, it is the ultimate evil and the most absurd. Even bodily pain, while unpleasant serves a purpose. It lets us know there is something wrong within our bodies and we should see a physician. What purpose does eternal punishment serve? What is its telos? And this evil, is perpetrated by God himself! While our wrong choices, our "sins" may have put us there, God sustains that malevolent chamber of horrors we call hell throughout eternity.

So how do we explain the existence of evil and still retain the traditional view of God? Many, including myself cannot. Some have gone the route of atheism or agnosticism. The problem of evil, while still a horrible thing, ceases to be a problem if God is taken out of the equation. Evil just becomes the result of physics and human choices in an indifferent universe. This sounds stark and hopeless, but for some it's an easier pill to swallow than having a God who is a cosmic sadist or at best, one who looks the other way in the face of evil. Others have joined the process theology camp, which offers an attractive theodicy, but at the expense the traditional understanding of God's sovereignty over the universe. In process theology, God's power is persuasive, not coercive. Consequently, God does not have unilateral control over the universe and the future remains open and unknown even to God. This idea of God isn't all that different from Rabbi Kushner's in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Some theists would probably say that process theology makes God superfluous, a "ghost in the machine" who really serves no purpose in a self-evolving universe. While my purpose here isn't to present an apologetic for process thought, I would recommend that one look into the subject before rejecting it completely. It does offer a unique and comprehensive doctrine of God. And while I'm not at that place yet, I may indeed find myself someday among the ranks of those who embrace the process view of God and the universe.

Currently, I label myself as an agnostic for the reasons presented above. I realize that the God I am rejecting may only be an erroneous idea of God, perpetuated through the centuries and not the true God if in fact one exists. Belief systems, like so much in life, should be subjected to continuous revision as new knowledge is obtained and verified. I don't recommend changing ones beliefs just for the sake of change, but an openness to new alternatives is a wise choice. Will I remain an agnostic? Possibly not. As I've already stated, I find much appeal in process thought. I'm also quite sympathetic to much eastern philosophy, which in my view is quite compatible with process theology as I understand it. One thing I'm fairly certain of: I will never be able to return to my former beliefs as expressed in orthodox Christian theology. To do so, I'd have to completely disregard all I've learned since I began this journey nine years ago. It's been a very educational and exciting adventure and I've both enjoyed and at times been challenged by my discoveries. But, because I kept an open mind and tried to maintain objectivity, I believe it was a very positive experience.

State: Pennsylvania
Country: USA
Became a Christian: 13
Ceased being a Christian: 35
Labels before: Christian
Labels now: Agnostic, Freethinker
Why I joined: Fear of hell
Why I left: The problem of evil
Email Address: geworfenheit2001 at yahoo dot com

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