Editor’s Note: Dave, an atheist ex-Pastor with a “coming-out” book coming out in the fall, introduces a new feature on Rational Doubt. If you have a question for Dave, please email him at askanexpastor [at] gmail [dot] com. Check the Ask an Atheist Ex-Pastor tab above for answers to questions asked by doubting lay people and clergy.
When I was in ministry, a parishioner would sometimes come to me with questions about the faith we proclaimed. Looking back, I am struck by how much courage it took to ask them and how different my answer to them would be now.
Parishioner Question: Why was the God of the Old Testament so violent compared to the God of the New Testament? Don’t we worship one God?
My answer then: Since I hadn’t yet confronted the thin-skinned, quick-tempered genocidal God of the Hebrew Scriptures, I would simply point to the notion that Jesus, by comparison, taught about a God of love and forgiveness. A favorite go-to verse was Matthew 5:44, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you .…”
Again, let me stress that my answer today would be much different, but if you’re asking a believing pastor, you’re likely going to get a similar answer. Today I would affirm the distasteful character of the God of the Old Testament, the alleged affirmation of Jesus that he didn’t come to reinterpret but to fulfill the law of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17-20), and that God is considered to be one and unchanging.
Another parishioner question centered on Jesus’s claims of exclusivity. I remember a young, bright man who was having trouble with a verse in Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples. “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me.” (John 14:6). My parishioner asked, “Do we, as Christians, say that the only way to experience God is through Jesus? What about all the other religions of the world?”
My answer then: I remember affirming that, yes, we believe Jesus is the only way to God. The man left the church and I was sad.
My answer today: I would simply roll my eyes at the arrogant audacity of any one religious expression to assume that it is the sole, authentic path to salvation based on no more evidence than the opinion that it is the sole, authentic path to salvation.
Then the time cam when I was the one with the questions. I went to one colleague and asked about a particular example of the violent nature of God in the Old Testament.
I remember listening to his answer, trying desperately to understand it, but not accepting it.
I went to another colleague lamenting that I was losing my passion for preaching, struck with the hypocrisy of trying to convince others of a message of which I was increasingly unconvinced. He suggested that I read some books by the New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright. I did. They helped but not for long. My mind was changing, slowly yet inexorably, from theism to atheism.
Where do we go with our questions? Some we may want to bury because we’re afraid of the answer. But sometimes we muster the courage to ask them, because we really want to hear someone’s response. If you are a believer and ask your current pastor, you are likely to get an answer that is different from an ex-pastor who is no longer a believer.
I look forward to hearing your comments and questions.