Do you have challenging questions for Christians?

A Christian pastor wrote in at Friendly Atheist to ask for difficult questions his congregation could try to tackle in discussion groups.  He wants his flock to avoid isolating themselves from challenges (and I bet he’d like them to be better prepared for evangelizing).  I’ve had problems with the questions atheists pose to Christians (some of which seem rooted in the common misunderstandings I ran through on Friday.

I’ve summarized and linked to my Why I Do Not Believe series, which was inspired by conversations with a group of evangelists on campus.

It’d be great for some of you to post questions in the Friendly Atheist comment thread, and there’s no reason the Christian readers of this site should feel excluded.  If there’s a question you have or are often asked that you struggle with, add it to the list!

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00769117142960558423 Northlander

    1. Do you believe that God has moral obligations? Why or why not?2. What is a "soul"?3. Do you believe that Jesus had perfect knowledge of the mind of God (the Father)?

    • Ben Guptill

      1.
      The Bible says God set the moral standards, and He alone is good.
      Psa 14:2 The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, [and] seek God.
      3 They are all gone aside, they are [all] together become filthy: [there is] none that doeth good, no, not one.
      Luk 18:19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.

      2.
      A soul is a confluence of spirit and flesh. The joining of the material and the immaterial. The sum total of our bodies and our spirit.
      Gen 2:7 And the LORD God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

      3.
      No. He was limited by his humanity.
      Hbr 2:9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.
      Mar 13:32 But of that day and [that] hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.

    • Greg

      1. Do you believe that God has moral obligations? Why or why not?

      If creation came from nothing (and not pantheistic) then it is the prerogative of the “first cause” to define any laws that exist in that creation and how to communicate those laws to sentient creatures within His creation. All revelation by God to his creatures reflects those laws of creation or will of the Creator. Humanity is that part of his sentient creation that God has most enabled to receive and communicate that revelation. However, God selected certain humans to faithfully receive and memorialize His revelation, which is His prerogative as Creator. God’s moral obligations have been passed down through oral and written tradition, which is best revealed in the Christian Church that He established (through His son). However revelation (albeit imperfect) does pass to some through other religious traditions to those who earnestly seek the truth and attempt to live it as they know it.

      2. What is a “soul”?

      A soul is that part of an individual human’s creation that animates certain matter of the universe so to cause life to begin and then continue for a time. God has decided that the soul would be created immortal, so it exists even after its task of animating matter concludes. The soul will be judged (in God’s prerogative) as to how it faithfully “lived out” that material phase of its existence to the extent that the soul received and responded to Revelation (whether perfect or imperfect).

      3. Do you believe that Jesus had perfect knowledge of the mind of God (the Father)?

      Yes. He (as Spirit) was always with the Father, and through their eternal mutual love manifest the Holy Spirit. Thus God is a family of three divine persons though one God. So when Jesus became incarnate he did not leave his divine nature with the Father but united it with his human soul and human body; thus “God-man”. Jesus became the bridge between eternity and time-space creation. He was the perfect Revelation of God – the Word of God.

  • Patrick

    It depends too much on the group's theology… but here are my go-to questions when I want to start something. I'll openly admit that these aren't "big questions" of theology, they're barbed questions intended to make someone uncomfortable or to get them to say something they don't want to say out loud.1. Do you believe that homosexuals are capable of being in love with each other?2. I know you're familiar with certain scriptures, and the contexts you think explain them. Are you familiar with the scriptures favored by other denominations who disagree with your theology, and the contexts they use to explain them?3. This isn't so much a question as a strategy: I just start them talking, and whenever they make a factual statement I stop them and ask them whether they really believe it and why. Some apologetics die on the spot, because they're not believable arguments- they're just attempts at blocking further questions. Push through the block, and there's nothing there.

    • Ben Guptill

      1.
      Before answering this, we must define love. The Christian definition of love is:
      1Cr 13:4 Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant,
      5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered,
      6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth;
      7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
      8 Love never fails;

      This describes a truly unconditional love. There are 4 Greek words that mean love. Only one of them – erros (erotic love) – has anything to do with sexuality, and this word (erros) does not appear in the Bible (though the other 3 do). In essence, the Bible does not define sexuality as a form of love. It does however describe homosexuality in terms of lust, not love.
      Rom 1:24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:
      26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:
      27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

      Is it possible for one person to love another person? Yes. In fact we are commanded to do so as Christians. But this isn’t sexual. Being “in love” isn’t love. True love is unconditional. It is just as easy for a heterosexual to be “in lust” as a homosexual. Our sexuality is not who we are, it is what we do – it is a behavior, not an inherent quality of being. The sin is no different for a hetero to have pre-marital or adulterous sex than for a homo to have gay sex. The sin is not in being tempted, the sin is what you do with that temptation.

      Jam 1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.
      14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.
      15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

      2.
      I’ve heard many arguments on many subjects, yes. I’m not convinced by most of them. There really is no substitute for reading the Bible yourself so that YOU know what it says.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    1. Explain how free will and absolute omniscience can logically co-exist. 2. Why should I believe the Bible is literally true when referencing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ but take it to be metaphor when telling me all the languages of the world are due to the Tower of Babel, or all of the animals in the world fit on an Ark, or the world is only 6,000 years old? Or, if you believe those are literally true… what kind of drugs are you on and where can I get some?3. The evidential argument for evil (or inductive argument from evil). Which can be found here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/4. Why is God a necessary being and why should it be your specific version of God? Why should I discount Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Hinduism, etc?There's about ten other good questions but those generally do the trick.

    • http://jonman-x.blogspot.ca/ JB

      Hmmm. I am a Christian, and when I consider these questions, I’m of two minds. The first wants to take up arms and explore the questions to death. The second wants to shrug it off as a waste of time. I’ll respond from both of these viewpoints:

      First to explore the questions: The first question is about how one could believe both in free will and absolute omniscience. Free will, as I understand it, is the idea that we are “in control” of our actions, that our actions are determined by our wills. Absolute omniscience, as I understand it, is the idea that God can effect and control everything in existence, ever. They seem to be at odds, something I could simply draw up as a Venn diagram with the set of “under God’s control” including “under my will’s control.” This seems to be what these definitions imply, and it seems to be a fallacy. One quick and easy response is that God basically is hands-off when it comes to our agency. The idea would be that while he could theoretically cause us to do things, he chooses not to. Another way to approach this question is to say that even if we didn’t have control of some parts of ourselves, the apparent illusion of the ability to make our own choices is something we can’t see above, so we effectively do have free will in that we can never simultaneously be presented with a decision and not be able to decide. At this point, though, the second mind I am ‘of’ wants to barge in and say that I don’t place a lot of stake on this questions, because I don’t feel like my understanding of it has much to do with the relevent parts of my faith. I think that the single biggest thing that causes western atheists to reject religion or Christianity is that they seem to have this idea that religion is simply belief, and belief is the agreement with some proposition. Agreement with propositions, to me who considers myself a Christian, is not an adaquate picture of Christianity. You could say that I have free will or that I do not have free will, that God is omniscient or that he is not omniscient. As far as I’m concerned, none of these statements have much substance. Supposing for a second that our conception of agency or control “actually” means anything at all, as in, they reflect in entirety the objective properties of the universe, what does our understanding of these things have to do with them? The relevent parts of my faith are the parts that interact with God (such is how I describe my Christianity). This kind of belief is an integral part, and at the same time, to focus on it and it alone is to miss the point. I believe that Jesus said that “unless we become like little children, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. ” I see Christianity as acceptance. Acceptance of what? That’s the maddening part. I can’t adaquately sum up my faith. To say that this is a requirement of the Christian is to say that a necessary prerequisite to Christianity is to build an internally consistent, comprehensive and complete metaphysics. And if that mattered, it would seem that the only people who could even BE Christians would be people who have the ability, the patience and desire to do that. This is not something I feel is in the spirit of Jesus, or his message, or my faith. I would say that Christianity is following God, it is hearing God, it is believing in God and seeking his will and direction for my life. To isolate and scrutinise these statements into operationally definable bits, however, has proved fruitless for me. I’ve found that the second I’ve defined an element of my faith, I’ve lost my faith. Christianity, to me, does include belief. But in a sense it also doesn’t. I’d say that it’s better characterised by “acceptance” than it is by belief as it is formally understood. This is how I understand my faith, however, I’m not necessarily a typical Christian. There are people who are apologists, who try to logically defend a formal creed. I’m a Christian who is utterly wrecked for confidence in any methods of man (empirical or rational) for finding truth, and who sees theoretical constructs and language itself (regarding God) as forms to a figure that can’t really be comprehended. Dang, now that I’ve gotten going, I don’t think I have the time or space to respond to the remaining questions.. Oh well. My views are atypical probably, so this may not have actually been helpful. Feel free to comment back or get ahold of me if you want to discuss anything.

    • Ben Guptill

      1.
      If I give my child a choice – wear the black shirt or white shirt – both free will and my authority over the child are both intact. The child gets to choose within the defined parameters.

      Deu 30:19 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants,
      20 by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”
      Jhn 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

      2.
      “Why should I believe the Bible is literally true when referencing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ but take it to be metaphor when telling me all the languages of the world are due to the Tower of Babel, or all of the animals in the world fit on an Ark, or the world is only 6,000 years old?”

      I agree, this is a logical fallacy. If you dismiss one, you should dismiss the other. If you believe one, you should believe the other. But the world is FULL of logically inconsistent people.

      3.
      The evidential argument for evil:
      1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
      2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
      3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
      4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
      5. Evil exists.
      6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
      7. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

      This argument is unsound. It breaks down somewhere around #4. You see a morally perfect God would include attributes such as love, mercy, and grace.

      Rom 9:22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?
      23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory,

      You see — you and I are evil. If God, in his zeal for justice eliminated all evil, you and I would never have had the chance to exist.

      Gen 6:5 Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

      But because of his mercy and love He gave us a chance.

      Rom 5:6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
      7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.
      8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
      9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I just have to say I absolutely love the picture in this post. :)

  • Michael Haycock

    One question that's always interesting is to ask most Christians about the morality of God's sending those who simply did not hear of Christ in their earthly lives (or were only exposed to warped and inaccurate Christian beliefs) to eternal torture and punishment. One pastor's son to whom I asked this responded that it only put the Great Commission – go forth and teach all nations – into its proper and dire perspective.It's interesting to hear answers and to ask where those answers are backed up in scripture or religiously authoritative writings. That's not to say I've asked it very much, nor that I advocate spirited debate or heated contention (I think they're quite antithetical to spiritual discussions); I just know this is intriguing, especially because to my faith (the LDS Church) it's a non-issue, as we believe that people can accept Christ's sacrifice and forgiveness after death.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    Does that universalist aspect of Mormon theology make your missionary work harder sometimes, Michael? I know there's sometimes a joke that goes around atheist circles that Mormonism is the only losing choice in Pascal's wager, since you could be converted after death. I don't know if that flip response is counterbalanced by the perception that the Mormon position is more merciful.

    • FightingLee

      Leah, if you think about the mormon doctrine on conversion and growth beyond this life, it appears to be the only christian based teaching that includes all peoples for salvation. Otherwise, how do we consider the starving children in Africa. Why are they condemned to hell (both on earth in a way and after this life). What of the good people born in china or different regions of the world without ever having an opportunity to accept the savior?

      I thin there exists a misconception that after death, it would be easy to accept and what is the purpose of this life then (just to touch on your pascal’s wager comment). Mormon theology believes that after this life, the spirit is still bound to many of the same vices and desires they had in the body. Also, it is not assumed that after this life, that we all just show up and bam, we know everything. We continue to learn after this life and progress.

  • Maggie

    How do you explain similarities between Christianity and other religions (eg Moses/Osiris, Jesus/Horus, Mary/Isis)? I've heard people claim that previous, 'primitive' religions were seeking the true God and had glimpses of it in their myths, but much of Christianity seems so obviously a continuation of older stories. What makes it true and the previous ones false?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10845051786114528609 Julie Robison

    These are great questions! Leah, a little bit later this next month, I'd love to guest post and try to answer a couple of these from a Catholic viewpoint. :)

  • Michael Haycock

    Leah:Sorry, I didn't see your response until this morning!As a matter of fact, it often doesn't come up in missionary discussions because people don't know about it and it's not emphasized – the reason being that we do focus on finding living converts on Earth. There are reasons that living converts are needed – for example, to perform sacred, necessary rites by proxy (that require the presence of a physical body) for those who have passed on. It is also taught that rejecting the truth or acting against it after you do know it is true, or perhaps even flippantly dismissing it, will distance you from God and make your conversion even more difficult (especially after death). It is primarily seen as a sign of the great mercy of God, who will allow *every* person the chance to choose to follow His will or not at some point or another, not damning millions because of historical circumstance. In addition, there are differences between levels in heaven that can motivate us to seek to follow the commandments and principles God reveals instead of willfully ignoring them or "procrastinating the day of [our] repentance until the end" (Alma 34:33). For example, even though those in the lowest level will live in unimaginably good circumstances, only those who reach the highest will live with God and their families for eternity and have the chance of further learning and development.However, I think the more interesting question is this: Why do we bother doing missionary work at all, given human fallibility here and the fact that everyone will receive the message perfectly after their death, thus having the chance to accept or reject it in its purity and entirety? That's what I had to answer (for myself, because I've not really encountered that question elsewhere) before I went on my mission. :)

  • Michael Haycock

    A few related passages are at the links below.A recent talk by a present apostle (one of the highest leaders of the Church): http://lds.org/general-conference/2009/04/our-fathers-plan-big-enough-for-all-his-children?lang=engThe Book of Mormon chapter I just cited: http://lds.org/scriptures/bofm/alma/34?lang=eng

  • http://asymptosis.com Steve Roth

    Do you think the Lord God could have come up with the process of evolution, in all its spectacular complexity and majesty?If yes, why do you think he went instead with what's described in the two simplistic (and contradictory) creation stories in Genesis?

    • Ben Guptill

      No.

      Rom 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—

      1Cr 15:26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death.

      The Biblical story is of a perfect world, marred by sin and death. If death was an enemy of God, he would not have used it to create something he called “very good.” The Bible says death came as a punishment to sin. If death came before sin, then death is a part of the creation and not a punishment for sin. In order to have millions of years of evolution, you need death to select out those fittest for survival.

      BTW – there is nothing contradictory about the creation story in Genesis. Genesis 1 is an overview of the 6 days of creation, and Genesis 2 is a detailed explanation of day 6.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07333836912627161971 kidkawartha

    Steve-My take on that is that we hairless apes simply didn't have the capacity to grasp the concept of evolution- in reality, we didn't even "discover" it until a couple hundred years ago. And the other thing is your use of the word "stories". They are exactly that. I always have difficulty with why people on both sides keep trying to run the bible through a scientific framework- it's like asking if Winnie the Pooh is evidence that some talking bear exists somewhere.

  • FightingLee

    Northlander,
    1. This is a difficult question because if you believe in a perfect being as a God, then as imperfect people, it is hard to understand the mind of God. I think obligations is the wrong word. If we could remove from our selves the selfishness and pride that drives most of us, then we might find that morality is not something that must be obligated, but something we inherently have and our choices reflect that. We must not be obligated to do that which is natural. I think God would cease to be God if he was not moral, not because of some law, but because it is his makeup.

    2.I think answer one answers question 2.

    3. I think Jesus explained this one himself in the book of John. I will differ on here from most other christians, but it appears that Jesus learned and grew (as it says in the scriptures) until he came to a point that yes, he had a perfect knowledge of the mind of God. They are one in purpose, also as he states in John, just as he wishes we all were one. Jesus explains that the things that he thinks and God thinks are the same, and thus so are their actions. A man’s actions are predicated on thoughts. This goes back to question 1. Jesus had become as God, thus understanding as he does and thinking as he does, thus acting as he does. There is no longer an obligation to act a certain way, we become something new.

  • The Paz

    Leah

    How sad that you have allowed emotion and brain chemistry to supersede reason and intelligence. Your conversion to Catholicism, the second most repressive region on earth, is unbelievably stupid. To think that there is any truth to any religion smacks of stupidity. Hopefully you will soon come back to your senses and get back on track and realize that the universe if filled with all kinds of life and that religion and god were created by man to explain the unexplainable and to give comfort to life on earth.

    Don’t wait too long.

  • The Paz

    Leah

    How sad that you have allowed emotion and brain chemistry to supersede reason and intelligence. Your conversion to Catholicism, the second most repressive region on earth, is unbelievably stupid. To think that there is any truth to any religion smacks of stupidity. Hopefully you will soon come back to your senses and get back on track and realize that the universe is filled with all kinds of life and that religion and god were created by man to explain the unexplainable and to give comfort to life on earth.

    Don’t wait too long.

  • levan

    What was the day before genisis 1:1? now before you ask me what was the day before the big bang, just awnser.


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