Must a Christian Believe in God? (“Godless Christianity?”)

Must a Christian Believe in God? (“Godless Christianity?”) September 16, 2013

Must a Christian Believe in God? Is there a “Godless Christianity?”

Over the years I’ve had many encounters with people claiming to be Christians who also say they either do not believe in God or are not sure whether they believe in God. And I’ve read several theologians who claim to be Christian who deny the existence/reality of God (that is, they deny “theistic realism”).

Must a person believe in God to be Christian?

Well, first, we have to parse the question and terms carefully. What do people like this mean by “God?” What do they mean by “believe in?” What do they mean by “existence” when applied to God?

Theologian Paul Tillich famously denied the existence of God. But so did Søren Kierkegaard. So have many existentialist theologians and theologians inclined toward negative theology. But what did they mean?

Tillich made much of the brokenness of finite existence; for him “existence” is cut off from “essence.” God transcends the divide between essence and existence. Also, to “exist” is to be an object; God transcends object-ness. God is not an object, a thing.

So some philosophers and theologians who deny God’s existence believe in God’s reality; they believe in God.

I wrote my entire doctoral dissertation (Rice University, 1984) on Pannenberg’s phrase “God does not yet exist.” One thing is clear; Pannenberg believes in God. (Read my chapters on Moltmann and Pannenberg in my forthcoming book The Journey of Modern Theology to find out what “God does not yet exist” meant in “eschatological theology” and why Moltmann, who clearly believes in God, once declared that “only a Christian can be a good atheist.”)

So we can’t take “God does not exist” at face value; we have to ask people who say that what they mean.

However, beginning at least in the 1960s, some self-identified Christian theologians began to talk about “Christian atheism” and claimed that they were Christians without believing in God’s reality. That is, they denied theistic realism—any reality of God except as a cipher for some dimension of nature or human spirituality. Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton were the most famous examples. Later Don Cupitt joined them in his own way, putting his own spin on “taking leave of God for God’s sake.” For him, as for many modern and postmodern self-identified Christians, “God” is simply a cipher for “the call forward,” spirituality, self-transcendence.

So why did these people, the radical theologians, consider themselves Christians? As William Hamilton insisted, they are Christians because they “stand with Jesus” in the world. That is, their posture toward the world is one inspired by Jesus.

More recently one reads self-identified Christian thinkers like John Caputo and his popularizer Peter Rollins (not to say Rollins doesn’t have his own ideas or isn’t inspired by other thinkers than Caputo) and wonders whether they believe in God. I think they are being purposefully ambiguous about it in order to provoke thought about assumptions about “God.” They are bothered (to say the least) by what they consider distortions of God in folk religion and some scholarly religion as well. For them, it is a sin to objectify God. So most talk about God is demeaning to God. But that leaves us with little ability to talk about God. Of course, the mystics such as Meister Eckhart were saying much the same centuries ago. And Kierkegaard wrestled with this in his context of easy-believism in which “God” was often just a cipher for respectable Danish culture.

I worry, though, that these ideas are filtering down to non-theologically trained self-identified Christians in confused ways. I am hearing more and more about and from self-identified Christians who go to church, consider themselves Jesus-loving persons, engage in spiritual exercises, and yet say they do not believe in God or are not sure they believe in God. In fact, I would say this is an issue churches and church leaders must face.

A few years ago Reformed theologian Michael Horton wrote a book entitled Christless Christianity. I found myself in agreement with much of it. However, perhaps it’s time someone wrote a book entitled Godless Christianity—not to condemn genuinely concerned or confused self-identified Christians who are not sure they believe in God but to explore why some self-identified Christians do not believe in God or are not if they believe in God and then to explain why belief in God, faith in God (not proof of God) is necessary to authentic Christianity.

So why do many thoughtful, reflective, even “spiritual,” Jesus-loving people who consider themselves Christians either deny God or struggle with belief in God?

I’m sure there are many reasons, but here I’ll touch on a few.

First, I suspect many of them grew up thinking of God as a “God of the gaps” and finding out the gaps in knowledge they thought God was necessary to fill can be closed otherwise—for example by science. Second, I suspect many of them grew up thinking of God as a cruel judge and even author of evil and innocent suffering and came to think that this all-determining, judgmental God was not worth believing in. Third, I suspect many of them grew up thinking of God as the only source for moral living, that only believers in God could or would live “good lives,” and then found out agnostics and atheists can also live good, moral lives (often better than many people who believe in God!). Fourth, I suspect many of them grew up thinking their parents were “God-like” and then, under disillusionment about their parents (or pastors), discarded belief in God (the inevitable results of what Feuerbach and Freud called “projection”). Fifth, I suspect many of them found themselves unable to resist temptations, fell into sinful lifestyles, and simply decided believing in God was too much trouble for their consciences. Then they found intellectual arguments in the writings of atheists to support their preference not to believe in God (because believing in God would make them feel constantly guilty as they continued “living in sin”).

However, there’s a sixth reason—one more difficult to challenge than the first five. Many young self-identified Christians have simply come to identify “God” with the trivialized deity of much American Christianity who is little more than a cosmic prop for American values. They realize that what one author called “Good old plastic Jesus” is a farce and they want to hold on to Jesus as he really was and is, but they can dispense with God because he has been hopelessly trivialized by popular Christianity in numerous ways. In other words, for them, there simply remains no way to think or speak about God without including, implicitly if not explicitly, all those popular images.

I sympathize with these people. But I do not think it is necessary to give up on God just because it seems almost impossible to “rescue” God from cultural theisms. Our task as Christians ought to be to hold on to God (who is, of course, really holding on to us!) and rescue his reputation from the numerous ways in which he is demeaned, used, by “good Christian folks” and their leaders (politicians, television evangelists, popular apologetics writers, movie-makers, many pastors, etc.).

So, the proposed book Godless Christianity would have to deal with two issues—why belief in the real God, the God of Jesus Christ, is necessary for authentic Christianity and why much of what passes as belief in God in America (I won’t speak of other countries but I’m sure America is not unique in this regard) is the cause of thoughtful, reflective, even spiritual people giving up on God.

Finally, then, why do I think belief in God (as distinct from proof of God) is a necessary, indispensable part of authentic Christianity? That it is may seem obvious to most people, but my whole point in this post is that they ought to rethink that as many young people today do not see it as obvious. I don’t think it’s really possible to believe in Jesus in any robust sense and dispense with Jesus’s God. God was part and parcel of Jesus’s message. But, of course, we have to learn from him, not from culture, who God is. And, if Jesus was not God, then we have no real reason to consider him unsurpassable. Why hold to him if there could be others, even living today, who are what he was (without God)—just a human prophet and example?

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  • Dan Ortiz

    Very interesting reading… there is a book out by Brian Mountford called Christian Atheists that deals with the very same phenomenon…

  • Austin

    Interesting post – very timely too. There is a lot of discussion of Christian Atheism in theological circles because of the enormous popularity of Slavoj Zizek (another major influence on Rollins). I don’t know if you noticed, but there was a fascinating guest post at Tony Jones’ blog a few days ago on Zizek by someone who basically endorses his position. I thought I would share a link for you in case you hadn’t seen it:

    • Roger Olson

      I have read some of Zizek and he reminds me much of Altizer. The two have appeared together and I’ve watched their presentations and conversation on youtube. Two who think alike found each other.

      • Jack Harper

        Roger,Justo L. Gonzalez,:in his books on the history of Christianity, points out that Christians were called atheist for not believing in the pagan gods of Rome. Interestingly we have switched that meaning to encompass a non belief in a deity all to together. How do we reconcile an atheistic belief as Christians? Wouldn’t it be better to say we are looking for a truer concept of who God is apart from how some have painted God?

        • Roger Olson


  • Ted

    Why does someone with the label of ‘God’ need rescuing at all?

    • Roger Olson

      Um, I didn’t say God needs rescuing; I said his reputation needs rescuing from those who distort it.Those are entirely different things. Please read carefully and respond appropriately. Thanks.

  • Scott F

    You are one of the few people I have encountered who really “gets” the issues facing the church as it deals with the next generation. Thank you for blogging.

    • Roger Olson

      That’s very encouraging. Thanks.

  • kenny Johnson

    Very interesting, Roger. Thanks. My faith in God has weakened over the years and I was probably one of those who had a “God of the gaps” view of God. I still believe in God, but I’ve felt that my faith in God is more “hopeful” than “real.” What I mean is that I don’t feel like I know God (or ever have) in any “real” sense. It’s almost always been an intellectual knowledge — and that’s been challenged over the years… so all I’m left with is a God I hope is real. I’ve tried to connect to God through various spiritual practices and prayer, but for whatever reason, I never seem to know Him the way other Christian do (or claim to).

    In fact, more recently my entire faith seems to have become one of hope, because I find the alternative so hopeless. It’s what keeps me in the faith and a (relatively) committed believer.

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks for sharing that. I suspect you are not alone among reflective Christians.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I affirm more of a Tillich/mystical notion of God than the traditional “super Being” that most Christians (IMO) utilize. It’s very understandable that, since humans are the top species on the food chain, we would humanize our concept of God to be a supernatural entity who has jealousies, fears, dreams etc. like humans do. Yahweh in the OT not only has these sentiments, but he can be argued with and persuaded (!), like humans are lowly attorneys and God the all-powerful magistrate. (of course one can read this passages less literal/being less straight forward as I’m noting, but for the sake of argument)

    The problem is this concept of God runs into lots of theoretical problems (as Tillich famously asked, if God is a distinct “being,” what created God?) and of course you have the never satisfactorily answered problem of evil if God is an omnipotent supernatural landlord. Also, in the concept of God as landlord, he’s absentee for practically all of human existence except for a handful of units.

    But God may be more “beyond being” (The Lakota Indians’ concept of Wakan Tanka or “Great Mystery” is similar), I think Jesus’s preaching of the Reign of God (“Kingdom”) actually interfaces with this idea quite nicely. That God is everywhere, but is found through pure actions of the heart and acts of mercy . . it’s a very participatory notion of being in a relationship with God that resonates with God as beyond being.

    As for the fair question of “how does Jesus fit into the above,” I think the earliest Christian tradition spoke of Jesus as being uniquely “indwelled” with God as opposed to being God Himself. I think this notion fits the above concept without having to think of Jesus as a supernatural man “sent” by the God-Being to die. And all of this God debate is interesting, but ultimately believing that God is found, in some way, uniquely in Jesus is a matter of faith.

    • Roger Olson

      If I ever come to hold Tillich’s theology I will do everyone a favor and stop calling myself a Christian.

      • Andrew Dowling


        Can you expound on that?

        Is that because you think Christianity necessitates Jesus being “sent” by God to die for some cosmological reason? Or that it requires a God who ultimately ensures everything happens for a reason?

        For myself, I like a lot of Tillich’s concepts although I wouldn’t say I
        fully adhere to his theology (partially because I don’t fully understand it!)

        • Roger Olson

          In the interim (while I was unable to access my blog due to technical difficulties) I’ve forgotten what I said that you would like me to expand upon. In brief, I think Christianity necessarily includes belief in Jesus as God–different from us in kind and not only in degree. I don’t think Christianity necessarily includes any particular view of God’s sovereignty (other than that God is in charge if not in control) or atonement (other than that our salvation depends on Christ’s death and resurrection).

          • Andrew Dowling

            But how does one believe that salvation depends on Christ’s death and resurrection without holding a particular view of the atonement? And if that action was necessary, and precluded Jesus being ‘sent’ by the Father for that atonement action, doesn’t God have to be a God “in control” . . if you can accomplish the atonement, how could God not be in control?

            This is why an atonement-centered Christianity requires the traditional omnipotent God-being I described, and I think that conception creates more problems than it solves. As stated, I don’t agree with all of Tillich’s thoughts but I appreciate him for being able to envision God in a different way compatible with modern science and a globalized world (which will always have religious diversity) without just folding and joining the atheist ranks.

          • Roger Olson

            What is it about “modern science” that requires one to revision God so radically as Tillich did? Or are you talking about the philosophy called naturalism that is often confused with science?

      • Many Horizons

        I’ve yet to nail down Tillich’s exact understanding of Jesus. It doesn’t seem to be Dionysian negative theology that affirms God’s “existence” while as negating it as something otherwise than our concept of existence… People like Nyssa or Denys used the negative ‘method’ as a way to ACTUALLY have union with the divine. I don’t see Tillich speaking of God in such a way.
        To accept the creeds, I would think, is to accept some sort of basic philosophical paradigm– whether in a apophotic way or not, God exists and that God has become incarnate in our reality, however we define it.
        Perhaps Tillich bought too much into the milieu of the biblical scholarship of his time?

        • Roger Olson

          I wrote the chapter on Tillich in 20th Century Theology and argued there (as in my forthcoming The Journey of Modern Theology) that Tillich was confused. His Christology, though, is clearer than almost any other part of his theology: “Jesus” was the historical person (although his name and exact identity don’t matter) who overcome the estrangement the rest of us experience due to the anxiety caused by the threat of non-being. In that he is rightly called “the New Being” (or what appeared in him is that). But what really matters is not his historical, actual, concrete reality but the image of a person who lived a life unbroken from the ground of being. He was certainly not God incarnate or one person of two natures (hypostatic union). Tillich is famous for saying (in recorded interviews) that if archeology should prove that no man named Jesus of Nazareth ever existed, it would make no difference to Christianity or to our being saved (accepting that we are accepted). But he insisted that there must have been a person who so impressed himself on the disciples that they gained from him the courage to be in the face of the threat of non-being.

    • Rory Tyer

      Andrew – I do not think this sentence is correct: “…the earliest Christian tradition spoke of Jesus as being uniquely “indwelled” with God as opposed to being God Himself” – it neglects what “indwelling” language would have signified for those first hearers, among other things. I suggest (if you have not already read it) Hurtado’s work on early Christian devotion to Jesus.

      • Andrew Dowling

        I know Hurtado’s work and IMO he really makes some unconvincing arguments to back up his claims of an early high Christology. I find the counter-arguments much more plausible and backed up by the evidence. I think its highly unlikely Jesus was worshipped as equal to Yahweh in Christianity’s first few decades, and likely never reached that status within the Jerusalem branch of the Christian Church pre-Jewish/Roman war. Otherwise a statement like Mark 10:18 (and Mark was a gentile Gospel!) would’ve never made it into that book through the oral tradition decades after Jesus’s death.

        • Roger Olson

          Celsus (around 150 AD) accused Christians of worshiping a man as God. When do you think this began and how? And do you think the report that Jesus was accused (at his trial) of making himself “equal with God” was false?

          • Andrew Dowling

            Trinitarian ideas were well established by 150. Based on my research, ideas around Jesus’s “co-equal” divine status with Yawheh-‘the Father’ developed as the Christian church became heavily “gentilized” in the last few decades of the 1st century. References to a ‘Son of God’ in the first half of the first century by Jewish Christians denoted a way to subvert pagan terms for Caesar (Savior of the world, Son of God) and use them for the true ‘Lord’ Jesus. The Jewish notion of calling someone a “son of God” did not confer divine status . . it literally meant a human who acted ‘Godly’/was righteous.

            But the idea of Jesus as a literal divine offspring of a Father ‘God’ is thoroughly Hellenistic . . the earliest Jewish-Christians did not share that theology. I think Hurtado’s contention that the virgin birth narratives are very early is one of his more absurd claims completely not backed up by textual criticism/what is found in other early Christian documents.

            I’m not sure what exact passage you’re referring to, but Jesus never claims equality with God in any of the Synoptic Gospels (or from recollection, is ever accused of equating himself with God . .He is accused of claiming to be the Christ, which is completely different). In Mark/Matthew/Luke He’s shown as a quasi-divine emissary, the Messiah/Anointed One but the texts do not equate Jesus with Yahweh . . that’s a pretty mainstream scholarly opinion.

          • Roger Olson

            This is old stuff–ground thoroughly covered in the literature. My reading of second century and third century Christian literature leads me to believe that, although the later hypostatic union doctrine was not fully developed, most Christians, especially those who knew the apostles or had links back to them, believed in and taught the deity of Christ. You ignored my mention of Celsus who accused second century Christians in Rome and other cities of “worshiping a man as God.” That’s pretty revealing.

          • Andrew Dowling

            ? I conceded trinitarian ideas were established and taught by the mid 2nd century. I’m talking about a century earlier . . .50 AD as opposed to 150 AD; a lot happens within 100 years.

            Even texts as late as 1 Clement (around the turn of the 1st century) depict Jesus as the Messiah who died for the sins of mankind and now sits at the right hand and acts as mankind’s intermediary to the Father. This is an exalted position, but it is a theology which still places God the Father above Jesus and does not equate them.

          • Roger Olson

            Nowhere does Clement deny Jesus’ deity. And it’s difficult to believe that Christians would start worshiping Christ as God (as Celsus claimed) within 50 years after Clement if none of the apostles or apostolic fathers worshiped Jesus as God. Besides, as I pointed out, the New Testament tells us Jesus was accused at his trial of “making himself equal with God” and he didn’t deny it. He went around telling people their sins were forgiven–as if he was the one doing the forgiving. I stand by C. S. Lewis “Liar, Lunatic, or Son of God” position and he clearly meant by “Son of God” God the Son. In his ministry Jesus functioned as one who thought he was God.

          • Andrew Dowling

            He doesn’t deny Jesus’s deity because he never equates Jesus with God. It looks like we are just going to have to agree to disagree here. Jesus never claims to be God in the Synoptics and Lewis presents a false trilemma

          • M85

            Even if one were to completely ignore the New Testament and church history and base oneself solely on the Old Testament the Messiah is presented there as a divine figure: Daniel’s Son of Man is worshipped, the Angel of the Lord in Genesis, Exodus and Judges, Immanuel in Isaia, the messianic psalms (Psalm 2 for example or Psalm 45), the monotheistic plurality of God in Genesis 1-3 are some notable examples. Finally the entirety of Scripture tells us that only God is our Saviour and only God can save, if Jesus isn’t God he can’t save anyone and isn’t our Saviour.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Ugh, Discuis is annoying, didn’t mean to send that yet. I was saying Lewis presents a false conflict since I don’t, and I think I’m safe to say I’m backed up by mainstream scholarship here, the historical Jesus never called himself God/equated himself to God.

          • Roger Olson

            What is “mainstream scholarship” today? Biblical/theological scholarship is hopelessly divided about these matters. They may agree that Jesus didn’t stand on a mountain top and shout “I’m God! Come and worship me!” But they don’t agree about whether his claims amounted to claiming to be God.

  • Margaret Placentra Johnston

    Um, the God you seem to be referring to is only subject to even greater confusion when the word “belief” is applied. Don’t you mean something more like
    “faith?” “Belief” implies you agree to the existence of some kind of being people call God.

    In my dilemma over the difference between what professional theologians refer to when they use the word God, and what is dispensed from the pulpit as “truth,” I was immensely relieved to read Harvey Cox’s take on it: That Belief was something imposed onto Christianity around the time of Constantine – Cox calls the time of Constantine (up to the present) the age “of Belief.” He claims that the original Christianity was based more on values, trust, and an agreed-upon way of living. Cox calls pre-Constantine Christianity the age “of Faith.”

    The word “belief” was imposed as a way to control the masses. Cox predicts
    this usage is falling by the wayside, and we are now moving into an age
    “of the Spirit.” As our current “masses” are getting too intelligent, too well-schooled, and too connected to increasingly broad modes of thought to be controlled by those wishing to impose specific beliefs, people are noticing commonalities among the various traditions, and noticing that most religions can be seen as the way one particular culture chose to respect its peoples’ attempts to connect with something greater than themselves.

    However, as long as people keep insisting on “belief,” each religion is doomed to forever consider itself superior to all others, and doomed to keep society mired in
    divisiveness, triumphalism and strife.

    • Roger Olson

      We are using the word “belief” differently. I’ve never encountered your or Cox’s meaning of it in theology. There are many things I believe where my belief was not imposed on me by anyone.

    • Rory Tyer

      Margaret, it sounds like you are conflating two separate and not necessarily related issues: the truthfulness of a given belief (or set of beliefs) and the relationship of those committed to that set of beliefs to those committed to different sets. A claim to the first does not necessarily entail that the second is characterized by things like “superiority,” “divisiveness,” or “triumphalism,” and it is arguable that practices of authentic, biblically “thick” Christian belief actually mitigate, rather than reinforce, those sorts of impulses.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Margaret,
      You seem to agree with Cox when he claims that “the original Christianity was based more on values, trust, and an agreed-upon way of living.” That doesn’t make sense with the story of Saul/Paul – at least it doesn’t make sense to me. Paul converted to Christianity because he was converted to a relationship with the living God and the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. He emphasized that in his letters – letters that shaped The Way hugely. While values, trust, and the like were and are still are important, they don’t seem to be as foundational to Christianity as truth and relationship to God . And not Paul alone, Jesus’ teaching held right thinking (truth) in high regard as well.
      If Jesus believed in God, and Christians follow Jesus, it would seem very odd to me if some Christians suddenly jettisoned God while also claiming Jesus.

  • Teri Walker

    I appreciate that you make space for some nuance when people say they aren’t certain they believe in God. I find humorous your use of the phrase “non-theologically trained self-identified Christians”, I am certain that this describes nearly all of us in Christendom and I would hope that strong Baptist voices would defend the soul freedom that permit us to disagree without trying to take away each other’s “Christian Card”. It doesn’t seem that unusual for Christians of a certain age and background to be very skeptical about “belief” but hold dear the tradition, the church, the stories and ultimately the Way. What does it matter if an individual is not certain of her beliefs but has hope and lives as if they were true while being mindful of the very real possibility of being wrong and treating others with that knowledge in mind?

    • Roger Olson

      I thought that was what I affirmed in my preceding post about doubt.

  • Witten

    I know he can be cagey, but I’m almost positive Alitzer believes in God, he just believes that god no longer exsists as a transcendental being, but he used to.

    • Roger Olson

      Then he is using “God” in an idiocyncratic way. And he was/is extremely enigmatic even to the point, I would say, of being purposely coy.

      • Witten

        I think it would be hard to confuse Alitzers theology with evangelical Christianity’s , but given that Alitzer is specifically talking about Jesus being the incarnation of the God of the bible, it would be very confusing if he started to use new words.

        • Roger Olson

          I’m not at all convinced Altizer believes Jesus is the incarnation of the God of the Bible in any way similar to what Christians have always believed or in any way similar to what I mean. According to him, in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, God annihilated himself in the kenosis of the cross and became inseparable from humanity in general–us.

  • Timothy

    Perhaps Tom Wright addresses the issue raised in point 6 although coming from a slightly difference place.
    He says somewhere that people often ask, “Was Jesus God?” as if they knew what was God and wanted to know whether Jesus was that God. Instead they should be asking, “Since Jesus is God, what does this say about what God is like?”

    • Roger Olson

      I love Tom!

  • marcellonewall

    “the trivialized deity of much American Christianity who is little more than a cosmic prop for American values”: thanks for this wonderful quote Dr. Olson.

  • labreuer

    I suggest that the following is enigmatic for most of the people described by Roger’s blog post:

    So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.

    Hebrews 1:3 is a more ‘doctrinal’ way the above is stated. But anyhow, Jesus is Yahweh. That means Jesus isn’t always gentle, and Yahweh isn’t always harsh. Only simplistic views of the OT and NT will lead to this misunderstanding—but as we all know, simplistic views reign supreme these days. Judging by appearances is considered true judgment.

    I suggest that what people are rejecting is a terrible form of Christianity which ought to be rejected. If they’re holding onto Jesus merely because he’s a Nice Guy, they need to see some serious evil (to channel Os Guinness). But I’ll bet for some of these folks, the Holy Spirit is finding ingenious ways of shielding them from falsehood. I’m pretty sure the Word knows how to use words pretty well. 🙂

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I’d say that for the common person, faith in God without a doubt is unreflective. In the same way, doubt without faith in God is foolish. Of course, some people are born to the extremes – and well, the world needs them too.

  • Van

    It has been my observation during 64 years of Christian ministry that if our ultimate salvation depended on our shaky “belief” or fickle “faith” in God, then, none of us would stand a chance of attaining the hereafter. Now let us be honest. How many times have we seen some of our greatest Christian heroes fall into serious moral failure? How many times has our own faith failed when push-came-to-shove? No. We cannot depend upon our own righteousness. At best, it’s on-again-and-off-again. So what’s the answer? Is there any hope?
    Yes. The answer is simple, as follows: We are not saved by our belief in God, but, rather, by his belief in us. It was God, in Christ, who intersected history to give us the blessed hope. By the way, we were not saved from a so-called hell, but, rather, we were saved from OURSELVES. And the vehicle of our salvation is the grace, i.e., ‘unmerited favor’ of God. Now if the means of our salvation is beyond ourselves given our inherent weaknesses, then ALL humanity may hope for salvation inasmuch as they, too, share those very same weaknesses with us.

    • Roger Olson

      Just to be clear: When I say a person is not a Christian, due perhaps to some heresy or denial of a cardinal Christian doctrine, I am not making any judgment about their salvation. God alone decides who is saved. But a Christian theologian must occasionally make judgment calls about what and who is authentically Christian. The World Council of Churches requires denominations that join to affirm that “Jesus is God and Savior.” Amen. Without that confident affirmation, however mixed with normal human doubt (as I have explained) a denomination or church or individual is not yet fully Christian.That is not to say it or she is not saved. This distinction is so clear and necessary to me that I often forget that not everyone shares it. But they should.

  • Lana

    Love this post! I’ve struggled with the postmodern culture for this reason, and even though I have qualms with my evangelical upbringing, the certainties I found there were more pleasant!

  • brianmurphy425

    I’m having a hard time figuring out what your point is. You say that belief in God is necessary, but what exactly do you mean by that? What exactly do you mean by belief? Or God? You say that you sympathize with the people who don’t want to identify God with the trivialized deity of American Christianity, but what about the trivialized deities of many culturally influenced forms of Christianity that have become part of the church.

    I think many of the people you listed would agree that we have to learn from Jesus who God is and that they would suggest that is who they looking at as they develop their theology. Sure they are influenced by their culture, but so is every other theologian.

    I feel like you think it contradicts the historical creeds and practices of historical Christianity. I guess I don’t see where that is necessarily the case. Perhaps some of these guys do, but perhaps we don’t fully understand them either.

    I read the article a couple times, but it didn’t seem very clear what your concern is about. Using the same language? Having the same definition for God? Not abandoning the word God?

    • Roger Olson

      I believe Christianity necessarily includes, as part of its overall reality-perspective, world view, metanarrative (not totalizing) that the world, finite reality, the universe, was created in some way (we don’t have to know how) by the all powerful and personal being the Bible calls Yahweh and who became incarnate as Jesus Christ. Call me a fundamentalist, but to deny that, directly or indirectly, is to move away from anything recognizable as Christianity.

  • Brandon

    Thanks for this post! I’ve noticed in the last year or so how many in the progressive/emergent camp seem to be attempting to resurrect “death of God” theology (pun certainly intended). To me, this seems highly problematic. From what I have heard from John Caputo and Pete Rollins, their Christology seems sketchy, at best. Am I correct in this assessment, or do you think that Caputo and Rollins are still within the bounds of orthodoxy, broadly speaking?

    • Roger Olson

      I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Their main concern seems to be to point believers in God away from all idolatries. I sympathize with that while worrying that in their negative theology they may sometimes go too far.

  • Brian P.

    I’m a former Christian and have as such lost working definitions to various of these terms. It is quite difficult to have any sort of meaningful dialogue about these things with the professing Christians I know. They lack, in at least some ways, creative immagination.

    • Roger Olson

      Either you don’t know the right professing Christians or your definition of “creative imagination” excludes Christians from having it.

  • Rob

    Great post on a timely topic! This stuff is getting out of hand. When I was younger, I generally gave people the benefit of the doubt as though they had principled reasons for saying weird things like “I follow Jesus but I don’t believe in God” but now that I have been around long enough to see class after class of know-it-all college freshmen, I tend to think that most people just follow intellectual fashions that appeal to them and repeat stuff they have heard. Somehow this confusion became trendy.

    It is sad that people still pay attention to Tillich who followed Heidegger in ruining the word ‘exist’ with straightforward nonsense. I would recommend such people take a logic course and learn about domains, quantifiers, predicates, etc. In fairness to Heidegger and Tillich, they came up in the world intellectually before the new logic had been fully developed and they certainly were never trained in it. I would guess that it was not until the 1930-40s that a grad student in philosophy could expect such training. No one trained in logic would take seriously the idea that we cannot say that God exists. One contemporary philosopher, Kris McDaniel at Syracuse, does defend a many-ways-of-being approach to (meta)ontology that was inspired by Heidegger, but even he admits that we have a universal quantifier–he just denies that it is semantically primitive.

    • Roger Olson

      I have always assumed that Tillich’s “God does not exist” was a way of getting attention and pointing people away from thinking of God as an object. I wrote my whole doctoral dissertation on Pannenberg’s statement that “God does not yet exist.” I concluded that this is nothing more than an expression of a type of German idealism in which thought and being are inseparable so that if something’s or someone’s existence is debatable (Strittig) it cannot be claimed as already “there” in reality (with “there” meaning Vorhanden–available). If philosophers and theologians always only used clear and distinct ideas what would we write doctoral dissertations about? 🙂

      • Rob

        I am sure you are right about the relationship with German idealism, but I think it was operating on precisely the confusion that the new logic helped unravel.

        In the late 19th century, the biggest philosophers (both Anglophone and on the Continent) were idealists working in the tradition that Hegel & co began based on their interpretation/appropriation of Kant.

        Part of the tradition included the naive theory of names or Millian names that claimed that for a word in a sentence to be meaningful, it must denote something real. On this theory of meaning, sentences like ‘Pegasus does not exist’ were really problematic. How can ‘Pegasus’ be meaningful if it does not denote? One of the leading figures of the day, Meinong, proposed that ‘Pegasus’ denotes a non-existing object. The way to reconcile this with the Millian theory of names is to propose a realm of being larger than or distinct from existence. Meinong has non-existent things subsist. Bertrand Russell used the new logic to point in a direction that would ultimately show that Meinong was confused. In the Anglophone tradition, that stuff about existence being just one mode of being has pretty much all disappeared because there is nothing to motivate it.

        Heidegger and Tillich are certainly laboring under the view that there are many modes of being. That’s fine. But Tillich cannot get away with saying that we cannot say that ‘God exists’. He must be doing one of two things:

        EITHER he is describing how we use the word ‘exist’ and showing that as it is used it cannot apply to God–in which case he is flat-out dead wrong and linguists and lexicographers can provide empirical evidence showing that competent speakers of natural languages use ‘exist’ in the same way about both God and humans and whatever OR Tillich is prescribing how we should use the term, perhaps claiming that only spatio-temporal things should be said to exist. If he wants to prescribe that use, then fine, but he should admit that the sense of ‘exist’ used by competent speakers applies to God as well as it applies to anything else–even if he is right about different modes of being. For even if there are different modes of being and there are quantifiers specific to those domains, we have a generic quantifier that ranges over all the domains–and that is the one used by competent speakers of natural languages.

        • Roger Olson

          I certainly agree that Tillich was using “exist” (in “God does not exist”) idiocyncratically. But, so what? Much philosophy and theology thrives on special uses of language. That’s part of the fun of studying it–trying to figure out what they mean. 🙂

          • Rob

            Well I said it was fine for him to talk like that, but I was suggesting we have every reason to ignore his use. His claim is either a false descriptive claim or an unmotivated prescriptive claim–so either way, we should ignore it. One good reason to ignore it is all the confusion that it brings about.

          • Roger Olson

            I sympathize with you about that. The only problem is, it’s too late to ignore Tillich and he had some good ideas as well. I use his misuse of language (viz., “God does not exist”) as a teachable moment to help students think about why we should neither de-personalize God (as I think Tillich did) nor treat God as an object (what he was reacting against).

  • Good insights Roger. At first I wasn’t going to read this post (thinking it might be the typical shrift) but was glad that I did. You do a good job at trying to keep abreast of contemporary movements while showing necessary reserve in judgment until more information comes to light (and sometimes that can be a very long time with a movement).
    I recently took an online class on Radical Theology by Peter Rollins in which we studied classic Continentalists (Hegel, Heidegger, Bonhoeffer, Tillich) and today’s newer figures like Caputo and Zizek. Unfortunately we skipped Derrida. What I wanted to discover was how to speak to today’s postmodernism within a Christian context. To do that I needed a different language and mindset to approach it from. Being a conservative Christian with classic upbringings I didn’t know if I could bridge the gap enough to do this. Still, I think its possible to create some form of God/Jesus-based Radical Theology that can speak to our postmodern times using a different paradigm than the typical evangelic one.
    Too, in this class setting I found Peter to be more concrete in his speech and less nebulous. Certainly he’s attracted to negative theology as a deconstructionist would be, but I also have discovered in him more of a reconstructionist attitude than he tries to let on. So we’ll see. However, it is my responsible not to be caught-in-translation and to speak of God to today’s generation of postmodern skeptical Christians who seem to be quite lost in their own wildernesses of eclectic belief and misguided thoughts about the Christian faith – especially given the several reasons that you think many are dealing with. It makes for a very interesting potpourri to speak to in a positive way of faith stimulation and God-belief centered in Jesus. Thank you again.

  • jtheory

    Just came across this.

    I like to think of myself as a hopeful agnostic, living in the tradition of a Christian a la Puddleglum “living like a Narnian”, because I have always felt like there is Something more out there, Personal and Real, and I take the Kierkegaardian leap of faith into contextualizing that something as Jesus. Because this faith makes the most sense to me, and I have hope that all this makes sense and God is giving us meaning.

    I think that we can’t have dogmatic belief, but we can have hopeful belief. We can know that whatever is true it’s gonna work out. I follow the Way of God because I think Nature speaks to it, and because I know that at its core lies the call to love, something all humans should do.

    I do think if God does exist that a reaction to Him is necessary, and right, as an existing Being, but I kinda get why existentialist try to parse that word exist. For me I have no problem believing He exists though, and whatever He is, He loves us.

    But I can’t say that beyond a shadow of a doubt, hence the admission of agnosticism.