Better Not to Believe

Better Not to Believe May 7, 2013

If there is still violence, it cannot any longer, even in the remotest sense, claim to be of God or try to cloak itself with his authority. To do that is to drive the idea of God back to its primitive stages, which modern religious and civil conscience rejects. Better atheism than that. Better not to believe that there is a god at all than to believe in a god who would order us to kill innocents. — Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Homily for Good Friday 2004

Sometimes it is hard to believe in God. Over the past four years I’ve found my faith tested by family life, job uncertainty, and a general isolation from the world. I often felt as if God were planting a finger on my tiny ant-like existence, pushing hard enough to pin me in pain, but not quite hard enough to squash me. At many points in my struggle, I found myself even thinking, “Does God care? Does God even exist? How could God exist and let me endure this kind of pain?”

Then I remember genocide, war, holocaust, and I remember the Cross. Part of me still believes in a God who orders bloodshed, who demands the death of innocent first-borns and cute little animals. Part of me still believe in a God who wages war, who deems pagans and their children worthy of rock-dashing, dismemberment, and total annihilation. Part of me believes in a God who wins through violence. And so it seems natural that the violence I suffer comes from a violent God. And that makes me hate him.

It would be better not to believe in God than believe in a God who tortures me and humanity, and requires us to torture one another.

Recently in my diocese, a man has been giving talks at various Catholic events about “self-defense”, including a recent homeschooling event than my wife attended. Catholic mothers in Saint Louis are being taught that the Catechism requires us to ‘defend our families’. As far as I know, this man isn’t recommending mothers go out and learn Aikido, but more likely go home and tell their husbands to go to the shooting range and buy a gun. I don’t know the specifics, exactly, and I don’t want to know. But I do know that my heart sighs deeply at the thought of more Christian-inspired violence. I’d rather we not be Christians at all than teach our children to kill in the name of Christ (although we never call it killing for Christ; we call it defending freedom or justice).

It really is about time to stop believing in a murderous divine. Our pain and suffering do not come from God. And if our pain and suffering do not come from God, than neither did Christ’s. There’s a strong tendency to understand the Cross of Christ as a punishment of God. God punished Christ instead of punishing humanity. Christ bore the penalty for our sins. Christ is our ransom.

And isn’t that interesting, that last word — ransom. A ransom is paid to a thief, to a brigand, to someone who operates outside the law, not within it. Who demands a ransom for the souls of the living and dead? It is not God who demands a ransom, but more likely Satan — the enemy who is the true source of pain, suffering, death, of wars, bloodshed, and suicide. Jesus came to conquer the devil, and to save us from the devil. And he did it by offering himself up in our place. Jesus said, “No. Take me instead.” Jesus said, “I’m the one you really want. So torture me. So kill me.”

This is a God I can believe in. This is a God I can try to dedicate my life, heart, mind, and soul to. This God doesn’t require bloodshed, but offers himself up as a lamb to be slaughtered — precisely to avoid the bloodshed of those he loves the most.

So that’s what I’ve been up to these last few years. I’ve been suffering, but not without purpose, and not alone. Christ has been suffering with me, as we’ve offered up our bodies and souls for the good of the persons entrusted to us — my family, my community, my Church.


(I’m looking forward to writing more, and appreciate Vox Nova for taking me back into the fold. I’d forgotten how much of blogging is a service to self — reinvigorating my spirit, and reminding myself why I believe. Thanks for reading. God bless! Please pray for me!)

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  • Julia Smucker

    Thank you, Nate, for this eloquent and thought-provoking reflection. I find your take on atonement compelling, as it contains a substitutionary dimension without falling into the pitfalls of penal substitution (I have the work of Mark Baker to thank for helping me grasp that distinction).

    I would quibble with the hint of “chronological snobbery” (as C.S. Lewis would call it) in the opening quote, equating the concept of divinely authorized violence with “primitive” theology and its rejection with modernity. History has shown, and sadly continues to show, that modern theists don’t necessarily get it better than the ancients did. That said, I wholeheartedly agree with the overarching point on the gross perversion of appeals to violence in the name of God, especially of God as revealed in Christ.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs

      I really have to agree with Julia’s point here strongly. It is not that one cannot see progress in identifiable areas of human life, including religious life which I take as a given in one form or another, We should know what those areas are and defend them against those who cry they should be destroyed or dissed because they are not perfect or complete. But as to general improvement I am not sure it it there realistically. The 20th Century was the most murderous yet, and mostly from people critical of religion. Now religionists seem bent on creating enough doomsday ideation to inspire nuts to compete with those murderous types.

      The fact that it is NOT an either/or should be a tip off. Namely, that when it comes to religion or not, some sort of mediating influence generally is the only option. It could take many forms, but it must be in between. For the tendency to try to make the world conform to my transcendental beliefs, and not to mediating decencies, is the real problem. (Kind of sheds an unpleasant light on Cardinal Dolan’s desire to constantly impose his “absolute truth” everywhere.)

      At any rate, you should let go of the weight of the world, Brother, Let God improve the world he created, it is not up to you. In the meantime, if you can critique the traditional view of “smite my enemies” theism, you can just as easily critique the “vicarious suffering” part, and perhaps look into some Zoloft. It works.

    • Nate Wildermuth

      Good points, Julia. Sometimes progress is from the slingshot to the atom bomb, isn’t it? Both materially and spiritually . . .

      And yet the idea of the development of catholic doctrine implies that there can only be forward progress in the Church’s doctrines. That would certainly be the case with any corpus of infallible teachings, logically speaking. Not that we seem to have many of those.

      I’ve wondered of late whether the Church still has the authority to add to the canon of scripture, or if that option is closed. I know God spoke the entire Word in Christ, but clearly we are still finding depths of truth in that Word.

  • Jane Louise

    Thank you for your thought-provoking post. It’s timely: as the families of those unimaginably strong and brave women in Cleveland give thanks for the miracle of their release, I find myself wondering why, if miraculous intervention were available to save them after all, it was withheld until now? There are times when even the idea of miracle (of all things) just makes God look bad, not good.

    As a person on a journey from atheism to an as-yet-unchosen room in God’s house, the longing to find an explanation for my son’s autism has been the major driver in my search for an explanation for evil. But I can’t see it in your terms, Nate. I can’t see the crucifixion as a ransom to evil personified. I can’t see evil as being caused by “One” or the other. That drift towards dualism shakes the foundations of a supreme creator theology too much for me. If I give that away I might as well return from whence I came. So, it seems unavoidable: my supreme Creator must somehow face the music when it comes to evil in the world. A natural theology supplies the necessary connecting bridge for me and offers the beginning of an answer to the hard questions about authorship. It’s a long road, but, for me, more comfort is to be found in the notion of Christ plunged into suffering with humanity – not vicarious but real, fully human and personal; a God whose boundless love is confirmed by empathy with the human condition and experience; a God whose great transformational act lies not in sacrifice, ransom, substitution or even atonement but simply in love. That implies many difficult propositions – divine temporality, self-limitation, vulnerability, lawyerly qualifications of the idea of omniscience. But I think I’d rather grapple with those challenges than the alternatives. That’s a God who may be enlivened within me, whose truth resonates with my experience and intuition, if only I can be open to it.

    • derrick

      “It’s a long road, but, for me, more comfort is to be found in the notion of Christ plunged into suffering with humanity – not vicarious but real, fully human and personal; a God whose boundless love is confirmed by empathy with the human condition and experience; a God whose great transformational act lies[…]simply in love.”


  • Thanks for being back, Nate (I might even consider some credit for that myself …)

    And thanks again for sending me your essay about Catholic Peacemaking.

  • Ronald King

    Nate, It is good to read your thoughts again. It is your openness with your vulnerability and sensitivity to the violence and suffering in this world which appeals to me. For me, the “entire Word in Christ” is contained on the Cross. He shows us how to react to violence of any sort.
    Peter Paul, it seems to me that the violence of the 20th century is more the failure of religion and its leaders than the result of those critical of religion.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    Well, I am in a funny position here of having to “defend religion” , by the contours you have limned with your logic. Indeed, I have to admit that your reading does make some sense with history. To wit, to put it colloquially, if religionists had not so royally screwed things up over the centuries, we might not have had a Stalin or a Mao or a Pol Pot. Yet I would point out that such logic is based on a rather sanguine view of human nature. Namely, that there is some nice way that people could perhaps “not screw things up.” Perhaps here is a way in which I am a conservative and not a liberal, in that I don’t see how this makes sense with human affairs in history at all. Things can be better or worse surely, but they are never going to be just right. Now you can thematize that any way you like, in terms of “the nature of consciousness” or Hobbesian “red in tooth and claw” or “Homo Homini Lupus”, or just in terms of good ol’ Felix Culpa original sin. Whatever, one choose, the point is that human beings are not going to get it right,

    So some sort of balance is the best that can ever be hoped for. I see religion as part of that balance ineluctably. I don’t see any reason to not to make fun of manifestations of it I don’t like. But I am NOT and never will be one of those working to make it “go away”. It is part of the human make up, and lots of great things and kindnesses and virtues are based on it. With that sort of thinking in the background I think that the case can be made that the dogmatic and aggressive enforcement of the “absence of religion” (as in “utopias” pursued by Stalin or Mao) are simply a greater threat than most theisms, even very corrupt ones. But as I said, some religionists seems to be working now to counter that sense.

    Btw, and lastly, it is also true that a more basic reading of those non-religious tyrants could be given in terms of their greater viciousness. Namely, that they “benefitted” from the greater technology and efficiency in the 20th Century. They were just more “efficient” at being vicious. But then what does one do with the gruesome example of Pol Pot who rejected technology with his Year Zero??

    • Ronald King

      Peter Paul, I love reading your responses. I see your points. For now I must be brief due to a lack of energy. Christians killing Christians in two world wars is one example of the failure of leaders to provide a living example of sacrificial love which would transcend nationalistic loyalties. Leaders of faith create the expectations of how the faith is to be lived by their actions or inactions rather than their words. The sheep follow. Sorry about the brevity. I will give more detail tomorrow.

      • Julia Smucker

        Christians killing Christians in two world wars is one example of the failure of leaders to provide a living example of sacrificial love which would transcend nationalistic loyalties.

        Indeed – although I would give the “sheep” more responsibility for their own moral agency than you seem to be implying here. But yes, it also represents a failure of leadership – as well as, more broadly, a failure on the part of Christians everywhere to conceive of a universal (catholic) Church that truly is bigger than our respective countries. Catholicity becomes a hard thing to remember when we subordinate our ecclesial identity to a national one.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs


          But one can surely say, with a mountain of historical evidence, that when the Church as “universal catholicity” was at its zenith, that there was un-ending war between Christian countries. Including of course the Papacy itself acting as one fighting partner occasionally even! I really cannot see what is being hoped for here, unless it is Never-Never Land. A related and little understood fact is that in modern democracies, messy and corrupt as they may be, with little real cohesive religious identity of course, the percentage of national wealth spent on military aggression is far smaller than it ever was compared to very cohesively Christian (Catholic) ones in the past. (This is so even for places like the US where the Military Industrial Complex is do deeply entrenched) The historical lesson would seem to be therefore, that LESS cohesive Christianity or religion generally (and not its negation as in places like North Korea) would seem to be the ticket to spending less on military aggression. (Note: Under the Most Catholic Kings of Spain military expenditure was between 50-70 percent of all expenditures for the King of national wealth.

  • bill bannon

    Nate, I think vox nova needs idea opposition in this area lest you become clublike about this but I’m not that opposition on an ongoing basis. I am too far from vox nova and your thinking and would note that biblical violence is not just in the Old Testament as ordered by God but the worst God involved massacre is in 70 AD with Tacitus estimating 600,000 killed and Josephus saying 1.1 million in Jerusalem which means it can’t be dismissed as some ancient Jewish hyperbole. Christ predicted it, gave it’s causation as the Jews not knowing their time of visitation and having filled up the measure of their ancestors’ sins ( the latter requirement present also in the Canaanite dooms which occurred only after God punished them lightly for 400 years as Wisdom 12 instructs us and as Gen15:15-16 predicted)… but too He gave instructions for escaping it which circulated in Jerusalem verbally for almost 40 years.
    You can try and circumvent that event as God caused with a karma like theory that helps Him exit stage left but it will nag at you. How do I process it? Number one….they didn’t go to hell unless they earned hell otherwise. It was a symbolic punishment that in many cases reduced greatly purgatory for some of them. God killed David’s baby for David’s sin…unless you can get the canon changed. I’m betting that baby is in heaven since “He wills all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”. Most of those killed in 70 AD were younger than the Christ persecutors of 70AD. Christ warned it would include the preborns within them. But God told the Jews in Deuteronomy 5:9 that punishment of the disobedient would proceed down to the third and fourth generation….ergo…70 AD. But Ezekiel tells us the son will not die for the sin of the father. They are both correct because Ezekiel is using “die” for eternal damnation….Deut.5:9 is using punishment for external punishment. We are the people in Jerusalem in 70 AD in this sense: we are under the punishment of death due to the first human whatever his real name was if he had one. We are punished with death for another’s sin and our death if it is by certain diseases will be harder than having our carotid artery cut by a Roman sword which would be quick. There is an awful video out of Mexico on youtube of a woman beheaded and I shut it off fast though I was trying to assess the cartel violence realistically that week but that was too much and I suspect it was cartel related though the poster stated it was husband and cheating wife…but the word zetas can be heard. I’ve prayed for her since and for him. But later I thought to myself she fainted as soon as the carotid was cut and she was drugged so as to not fight him. My mom suffered more than that quantitatively physically not emotionally…for two weeks or more in a hospital as she died.
    In any event. the last two Popes also could not deal with this aspect of God ordered violence so you are in good company….in section 40 of Evangelium Vitae, John Paul implies that God ordered death penalties in the Pentateuch were really Jewish only and in section 42 of Verbum Domini, Benedict implies the identical thing about the OT dooms but he fails to notice 70 AD or explain it…and it is worse than any event in the OT quantatively. But you’re in good company and I hear you. But I believe that God is saying something very loud in such events and not even the Church speaks realitically about 70 AD. Catholic writers almost report it as an architecture only event…the temple was destroyed and not one stone was left on another. Christianity seems to flee looking at the possibly one million killed.

    • Nate Wildermuth

      Bill, I appreciate opposition. The worst is silence.

    • If the dead of the First Jewish Revolt in 70 A.D. were the result of the Jews’ rejection of Christ, wouldn’t that mean that the Father rejected His son’s plea that they be “pardoned,” because “they know not what they do”? (Just asking–but doesn’t your logic ALSO imply, Mr. Bannon, that the “karmaic” “punishment” proceeds apace, and may include the Shoah?)

  • bill bannon

    No…Christ’s prayer, ” Forgive them Father, they know not what they do” does not cancel Christ’s prediction in Luke 19:44 “They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” If 70 AD meant that all who died physically in that week went to hell, there would be contradiction because they were unforegiven. Punishment lighter than hell can coexist with foregiveness. You can foregive your son for breaking the front picture window with a football….but his punishment of paying for it remains despite your foregiveness.
    Christ’s prayer is telling you in advance that they are not going to hell in that event unless they earned hell otherwise. Again David is told by Nathan in a prediction that his baby will die for his sin…physically not die spiritually. Those who were 11 years old when Christ was killed e.g. were 44 years old in 70 AD. Those who were babies when Christ was killed were 37 in 70 AD in Jerusalem. That is…many people in Jerusalem in 70 AD were innocent of rejecting Christ just as David’s baby was innocent of both his murdering Uriah and his adltery with Bathsheba. But Christ’s prayer was also mainly about both Romans and Jews proximate to His death though perhaps with exceptions because Caiphas knew that Caiphas was killing one man in order to curry favor with Rome for the nation as a whole.
    The Shoah has no connection to God. Revelation-restricted mass punishments of God end at 70 AD…period. Far right Christians including some Catholics point to the Jewish crowd saying in the gospel, ” His death be upon us and upon our children”…. and stretch that out to the Shoah. Their self curse in that saying goes beyond Deuteronomy 5:9 which says down to the third or fourth generation. They don’t get to alter scripture either just as we don’t. They especially don’t get to curse worse than God does since scripture says He delights in mercy. It ends at 70 AD…3rd and 4th generation. There are no justifed mass killings after 70 AD because the biblical mass killings are based on God knowing when a group’s sins are complete as per Gen.15:16…” ” …for the wickedness of the Amorites is not yet complete.”…said to Abraham 400 years prior to the dooms. Think of that. The Amorites were killing their own children and eating them as idol sacrifice for four hundred years before God stopped lighter punishments and used the Jews to kill them…but only when their sins were “complete” in His eyes. Once you know Gen.15:16 and that word ” complete”, frightfully stunning is the only description you can have of Christ’s words in Matt. 23 to the Jewish leaders: ” 31 Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; 32 now FILL UP what your ancestors measured out!”. Imagine Him increasing volume at that phrase. That is stunning to any Jew who knew by heart Gen.15:16 in regard to the Amorites and heard Christ that day say FILL UP with just anger and volume. Stunning and frightening.

  • bill bannon

    That of course should be ” His blood be upon us and upon our children” …not “death” though the meaning is the same.

  • trellis smith

    Touche Dismasdolben! One cannot argue that Mr. Bannon’s view was that of the early church fathers and down through the centuries, that the momentous suffering in the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem was caused by the Jewish rejection of the Christ and a pivotal eschatological event in the life of the Church. The Shoah and destruction of the Jewish remnant caused in no small part by these Christian interpretations of the first destruction was also a pivotal eschatological event in the life of the Church not in the repudiation of these interpretations but for many a repudiation of the very foundations of Christian faith.
    As Emil Fackenheim states: ” A good Christian suggests that perhaps Auschwitz was a divine reminder of the suffering of Christ. Should he not ask instead whether his Master himself, had He been present at Auschwitz, could have resisted degradation and dehumanization? What are the sufferings of the Cross compared to those of a mother whose child is slaughtered to the sound of laughter or the strains of a Viennese waltz? This question may sound sacrilegious to Christian ears. Yet we dare not shirk it, for we — Christians as well as Jews — must ask: at Auschwitz, did the grave win the victory after all, or, worse than the grave, did the devil himself win?”

    • Nate Wildermuth

      Where oh death, is thou sting?

      There are things worse than death. The recent news about the triple kidnapping in Cleveland has me, as a father, somewhat frightened. I daydreamed stoic-like about what it would be like to lose my son to a deranged kidnapper…

      Put us not to the test, Lord!

    • bill bannon

      Meet Christ: Luke 19:44 “They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”

      • bill, you quote Christ’s words, but I don’t really see how you can come across the idea that it is He who actually wants these events to take place. Jesus says what’s going to happen, He doesn’t say that he approves it.

      • trellis smith

        Mass extinctions of innocents are not and never have been visitations of Divine Judgement. I am aquainted with the Olivet discourses regarding the destruction of Jerusalem and while I am no biblical scholar i do know that one should be on guard with interpolations that prophesy after the fact. Even if you were to adhere to such a literal attribution you still haven’t necessarily accounted for nor understood judgement or causality. There are multiple concerns in interpreting these texts embedded with apocalyptic language, (which CS Lewis called the most embarrassing in the bible.) So you need to be aware of the rhetorical devices used in such language. Furthermore you not only need to reconstruct the background of the gospel author and the history to which the texts seems to indicate but you need to examine the the social and historical context when it was written to intelligibly decipher what is being said and to whom. What i facially gather from the Olivet discourses is that the systemic evil as found in the Temple system will ultimately be the cause of its own destruction alongside with which the innocent will suffer greatly. It is not saying much in recognizing that the repercussions of the sins of the father are visited upon the sons: Christians in particular the German peoples, are yet stigmatized by the horrors of the Nazis. The environmental decisions and other ethical choices we make today impact future generations however that does not mean the cause of coming foreseen calamities is Divine justice. it could be just basic physics.

  • Ronald King

    “But one can surely say, with a mountain of historical evidence, that when the Church as “universal catholicity” was at its zenith, that there was un-ending war between Christian countries. Including of course the Papacy itself acting as one fighting partner occasionally even!” The zenith of this catholicity seems to me to be more related to the political and military power of an organization/religion which has very little if anything to do with the foundation of the church. In my opinion it is the antithesis of truth and its religious expression and it is a major reason for resistance against religious institutions.
    I have an image of a pope prior to WW2 publicly offering himself to the Nazis(weird that I intentionally used a lower case n for Nazi and it was changed immediately to upper case) as being opposed to the dehumanization of the Jews as it was beginning in Germany and asking all Christians to join him in this nonviolent opposition? Peter Paul, this is my “Never- Never Land”.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    Well, Pope Francis just in the last few days reiterated his belief in the unatlerable hierachical nature of the “organization/religion”, so I think my less sanguine view is more in line with what’s happenin’. And what has happened.

  • Ronald King

    As time gets shorter I see the walls becoming thicker to drown out the screams from faces unseen and unknown. Let’s keep our tradition at all cost.