Atheists’ takes on the Christian story

November 28, 2006 | 16 comments

Though I’ve come along way on the spiritual front, sometimes when I think of the Christian story of how God revealed himself to man I still have the old pang of, “Oh, come on, it seems really unlikely that the Creator of heaven and earth would go this route. This sounds like something humans made up.”

I have come to the conclusion that it is true and that the Creator indeed did go that route (for brevity’s sake I’ll save my rationale for another day), but I still like to test my beliefs and ask myself the tough questions to better understand this new religion of mine.

For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to come up with a different way that God could have revealed himself that would make his presence more obvious and allow for more efficient dissemination of his message. I’m a fairly creative thinker, and I was not able to come up with any ideas that worked when held up against what the Catholic Church says we know about God.

So I sent the following question to Hemant at The Friendly Atheist:

I have a question that I’d love for you to pose to your readers. I think your audience would be the perfect crowd to help me on this. I’m trying to think through some of my newfound beliefs and am pondering some of the “hows” and “whys” behind the Christian story of how God revealed himself to man. Sometimes I think it makes a lot of sense, other times it seems implausible.

So…if you have any interest, I would love for you to ask your readers this question: pretend that you’re God for a minute. You created everything in the universe, including humans. You love humans, you want them to know you and your guidelines for how they should live, and you also want them to have free will. Given these parameters, how do you go about revealing yourself and your plan to them?

It would be interesting to me to see what you and your readers come up with.

He was kind enough to oblige and posed my question to his readers. I’ve only had time to glance through the responses but saw a couple of interesting ones that are good food for thought. Will write more on this later when I’m not typing with one hand while holding a baby.

In the meantime, go check out the responses. Any thoughts?


  1. Ersza

    Pretty disappointing, actually. Out of all the responses, only one person had a serious answer–that of writing a historically accurate and self-consistent book so that we could recognize its truth. The rest of the answers seemed to come from Christians trying to argue with an unstated atheist position, or from atheists trying to explain why the question is dumb and they shouldn’t have to answer it.

    I thought this was a great discussion starter.

  2. Anonymous

    I agree with ersza.

    I once posted a serious question* to atheists on the TRA site and I was struck by how flippant everyone was. Most refused to answer seriously. And I was also surprised to note a distinct lack of curiosity or wonder. It was an eye-opening experience for me because I had a mental conception of the courageous noble atheist like Sherlock Holmes.

    *My question to them was, “what would have to happen for you to believe in God?” Some of the answers as I recall were eg he’d have to explain everything, give me his powers, let me punch him in the nose, irreverant stuff like that that made me think they hadn’t thought it thru at all. And like Jennifer I realized that almost none of them could ever conceive of a situation that would constitute proof.

  3. Anonymous

    God could have used the moon as a giant billboard to advertise the Resurrection. Imagine if on Easter morning a full moon appeared with the words “Christ is Risen” emblazoned on it. Every person on earth, including the illiterate, could read it in his or her own language, just as the apostles were able to address the crowd on Pentecost and each man understood what they were saying even though they all spoke different languages — sort of a reverse tower of Babel.

    In order to avoid any confusion that “Christ” refers to Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus could have told Pontius Pilate, Caiphas, and anyone else in authority to look to the heavens on Sunday morning.

    Another way would be for Jesus to simply remain here on earth rather than ascending to heaven. In His resurrected state His body would never grow old or die, so He could be here to this day. How much of His divinity He wished to reveal and to whom He wished to reveal it would be up to Him. He could dispel all doubts that He is the same Jesus who was crucified 2000 years ago or He could keep ’em guessing.

    Most of humanity has never worshipped the same God, let alone the Christian God. Europe is rapidly losing its Christianity. We need miracles to provide us with evidence that God exists and which God to worship. Where are the miracles that were so commonplace in Biblical times? Why don’t they happen now? Perhaps they don’t happen now because they never happened then.

    We need miracles now more than ever because both science and time have destroyed the credibility of the Bible and the Catholic Church along with it because the Catholic Church teaches that the Bible — all of it — is the inerrant word of God. As Pope Leo XIII wrote: “It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings, either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error… This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly
    defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican.” (Providentissimus Deus, 1893) So if any Catholic bishop or priest tells you that the Bible’s inerrancy only applies to spiritual matters, let him be anathema! 🙂

    Science has proven that whoever wrote Genesis didn’t know what he was talking about. Time has proven to Jews that the Messiah will never come and to Christians that He will never return. Just wait, you say? Let’s be honest about it. If it hasn’t happened in 2000 years it ain’t going to happen — period. The prophecy of the Messiah’s coming — or second coming — has long passed its expiration date.

  4. Jennifer F.

    Anon2 – Thank you! Finally, some interesting thoughts. This is the sort of answer I was looking for, instead of the unnecessary nitpicking of the question which is what I mostly got at FA.

    Lots of great stuff to ponder here. One thing that jumps out at me though:

    Catholic Church teaches that the Bible — all of it — is the inerrant word of God. As Pope Leo XIII wrote…

    From my understanding, that doesn’t mean we necessarily have to take it literally, right? Surely the Catholic Church is familiar with the concept of oral tradition and how it was used to disseminate information in pre-literate societies.

    It’s possible that Genesis and other biblical stories can be true without going into scientific detail. For example: if my toddler asks me how babies are made and I go with a toddler-appropriate answer that glosses over a LOT of detail, I’m not telling him a lie or even anything inaccurate, I’m just speaking to him on his level. Could God not have done this with the stories in the Old Testament? I wrote more about this here.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts. Great stuff.

  5. SteveK

    As a Christian I agree that God could have done it differently and made his existance known with more certainty. But the qualifier I put on this statment is: it depends on what his plan is.

    What is God’s plan? By that I mean what is the most important thing in his plan of salvation? Pure speculation here – and I’m willing to be wrong – but perhaps the most important thing to God is to maximize the responsibility of each individual as it pertains to the decision making process. You know, give each individual just enough information to make an intelligent decision, but no more than that.

    What benefit does this have from God’s perspective? Again, I’m speculating here, but considering that we all have free will, I think this reveals the true desires of a person’s heart in it’s purest form.

  6. Dennis

    When a child is left with a babysitter (and I remember this from my own experience as a child, and have heard it told of other children countless times), the child believes Mom and Dad are never coming back. I remember crying for 20 minutes solid.

    But then they did come back.

    I guess it’s possible that Jesus isn’t coming back. And sometimes, parents do in fact leave and never come back.

    But just because it’s been a long time doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. It’s not proof. It’s not proof that Jesus is coming back, and it’s not proof that he isn’t.

    To the question of why Jesus didn’t stick around, I addressed that in a previous comment here, so I won’t repeat it.

    As to how the Catholic Church “reads” the Bible, and how we can say it is inerrant and at the same time contains things that may or may not be “factual,” read Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter, Divino Afflante Spiritu.

    Quoting one Papal encyclical without taking into account the organic development and explanation of the faith that takes place over time isn’t the same thing as saying “this is what your Church teaches.”

    Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) is seen as a further development of the themes of his predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, in Providentissimus Deus (1893).

  7. Tim

    I meant to add that if we’re talking about the resurrected Jesus sticking around, it still poses a problem. For some reason, and I’m not entirely sure why, Jesus had to leave in order to send the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other believers. If He could stay on Earth and still have the Holy Spirit come down to help us follow Him, that would be very cool. But for some reason, the Holy Spirit was only to come after Jesus left. So if Jesus stayed around, we would have no Holy Spirit, and thus we would not have access to the very power that allows us to follow Him. So either way, we end up being shown to the exit.

  8. Anonymous

    Hello, Jen. This is Anon2 — aka the Catholic-turned-atheist — as you probably know. Here we are in the Christmas season and I’m proselytizing atheism. I feel like someone who is going around to kindergarten classes trying to convince the kids that there is no Santa Claus. What a meanie!!! Why destroy people’s happiness? Especially if atheism is true, then this life is all we have so we should cherish whatever happiness we can get, truth be damned.

    At any rate, to answer your question: You’re right. The Church does not tell us that we must read the Bible literally. In fact, the Church pretty much lets us read the Bible as we wish as long as it is consistent with Church doctrine such as Original Sin, the Trinity, the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, her Immaculate Conception, Transubstantiation, etc.

    But the Church has a bias towards a literal reading of Scripture. That’s why the flap with Galileo. That’s why we have the doctrine of Original Sin and why Pius XII insisted in Humani Generis (1950) that all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve.

    Figurative readings are often used as one type of “escape hatch” to avoid conflict with a known truth. After a while I saw that I was using more and more types of escape hatches to avoid the honest conclusion that the Bible is just plain wrong.

    With regard to Genesis, God did not have to tell us how He created the world, but He did. It’s one thing to withhold information that we cannot understand but why tell us things that are not true? For example, you might tell your son that when two people love each other a baby is formed in Mommy’s tummy. You’re not telling him anything that isn’t true. You’re not telling him that Mommy swallowed a watermelon seed.

    This is the year 5767 in the Hebrew calendar. 5767 years from what? From the date of Creation. That’s the way the Jews understood Genesis and that’s the way Christians understood Genesis. In 1654 Anglican Archbishop James Ussher said that based on his study of the Bible the world was created in 4004 B.C.

    It wasn’t until the late 18th century that men began to postulate that the earth was much older than what the Bible was telling us. The Bible was not leading men to the truth. It was leading men away from the truth.

    To stevek:

    If God’s plan of salvation requires that we believe in Him then I don’t understand why He doesn’t give us that chance by appearing to us rather than remaining invisible. As things stand right now my belief in God requires that I believe in men who tell me to believe in God. I’ve heard nothing from God Himself.

    As I’ve said to Jen, if God loves us so much that He would suffer and die on the Cross for us, then why wouldn’t He love us enough to stick around and tell us about it? If we refuse to believe Him, fine, but at least He would be doing the logical thing.

    To Dennis:

    After 2000 years I would say that Jesus isn’t coming back, especially since He told John in Revelation that “I will be coming soon.” That’s what the early Christians thought. Paul even tells them that if they are single they should not bother getting married because “the time is short.” Can you imagine if they took his advice? Christianity would have died out in 100 years.

    Regarding the limitations you see with Jesus remaining here on earth after His Resurrection, the fact remains that as long as He stays here on earth we have proof of His Resurrection. Once He leaves that proof is gone.

    Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu was written in 1943 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Leo’s Providentissimus Deus. I don’t see that it changed anything. If I’ve missed something please let me know.

    To Tim:

    The sign on the moon announcing Christ’s Resurrection could be there permanently. Or it could reappear every Easter, perhaps once every 20 years so that each generation could see for itself.

    Excellent point about the Holy Spirit. I don’t understand it either. I’ll have to think about that.

  9. Jennifer F.

    Anon – Aaah! I had just promised myself that I will stop messing around with this blog and accomplish something today and then I read your comment. Please stop asking such good questions so that I can get something done around here. 🙂

    OK, some really, really quick comments…

    The Church has a bias towards a literal reading of Scripture. That’s why the flap with Galileo…

    The Church or the people in the Church? If you look at what the Church has stated infallibly, does that show the same preoccupation with literal interpretation? I didn’t think any official proclamations were made re: the sun orbiting the earth, that it was just the personal opinions of some folks in the Church. I could be wrong, I’m not sure and don’t have time to look it up right now.

    …That’s why we have the doctrine of Original Sin…

    Chesterton pointed out one time that many religions and traditions throughout history have passed on a similar story, that things used to be much better here on earth until defiant people screwed it up. I recall seeing that during my stint as an anthropology major in college. So I’m not sure if I’m convinced that that idea comes only from a literal interpretation of one incorrect story.

    …and why Pius XII insisted in Humani Generis (1950) that all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve.

    Has the National Geographic’s Genographic Project not shown something very similar to this?

    This is the year 5767 in the Hebrew calendar. 5767 years from what? From the date of Creation. That’s the way the Jews understood Genesis and that’s the way Christians understood Genesis. In 1654 Anglican Archbishop James Ussher said that based on his study of the Bible the world was created in 4004 B.C.

    Again, has any of this been declared officially by the Church? (Honest question, I don’t know).

    I’ve heard nothing from God Himself.

    Could God really give you a sign that you’d believe? I think Ersza makes a good point about this (I think in response to one of your comments) here. See her first comment, start at the second paragraph.

    The sign on the moon announcing Christ’s Resurrection could be there permanently.

    I’ve thought through this sort of thing. A LOT. A summary of my thoughts on that is in that same thread with Ersza’s comment I referenced above, here.

    OK, I have GOT to get something done before a 5:00 deadline. More later. Thanks for the tough questions!

  10. SteveK

    Jen (or others)
    I too don’t know the answer to the question I’m about to pose, but here it is anyway. I ask it with complete sincerity and a humble heart – oh, and probably a good dose of ignorance.

    When Catholics speak of “the Protestant understanding of the Bible”, what exactly is that? Is (or was) there an official Protestant understanding handed down to the masses concerning what should be interpreted literally, etc, etc.?

    Your comment “I didn’t think any official proclamations were made re: the sun orbiting the earth, that it was just the personal opinions of some folks in the Church.” is what prompted me to ask.

  11. SteveG

    When Catholics speak of “the Protestant understanding of the Bible”, what exactly is that? Is (or was) there an official Protestant understanding handed down to the masses concerning what should be interpreted literally, etc, etc.?

    Ahhhh! So many good questions, so little time!!

    When we use that term, what we mean is the Protestant Paradigm of interpretation outside the authority of the Magesterium (this means the church in the body of the Pope and Bishops in their teaching capacity).

    We don’t mean any particular Protestant interpretation, but the overall approach to the bible.

    For us, the place we go for understanding faith and morality is the Church, not the bible. The church has in its ‘arsenal’ many sources to draw upon. These include the scripture, tradition, natural law, etc. in order to explain, defend, and define doctrine. For us, the bible is under the Church, not over it.

    As St. Augustine said…

    “The only reason I trust scripture, is because the Church has told me I can.”

    …That pretty much captures the Catholic paradigm.

    The difficulty is that in America, Protestantism is so dominant, that many Catholics and Orthodox have unknowingly taken on the paradigm of Protestantism, so it’s actually hard to see this model in ‘action.’

  12. SteveK

    I didn’t mean for you to answer this one, but thanks anyway for taking the time my friend. We can continue it via email if you’d like. I’d rather you spend time answering Mike’s question. Much more important than little ol’ me.

    Jen’s comment that I quoted said to me “it’s not the official Catholic Church making these goofy claims, it’s the people in the pews that are making the mistake”.

    With a humble heart I continue….

    Protestants, it seems to me, can make the same claim because there isn’t an official position on these goofy claims of geocentrism, six 24-hour days of creation, etc. It’s the people in the pews that are making the mistake.

    No official Protestant position is the problem I think you would say. To that I would have to partially agree.

  13. Jennifer F.

    SteveK –

    What I was getting at is that I use official Church teaching and Church interpretations of the Bible (and anything else related to God) as my guide for understanding divine revelation. Any other opinions — whether from people on the street, lay Catholics, a priest’s personal opinions, etc. — are irrelevant to me. To be honest, I just don’t have an interest in debating what anyone one person’s interpretation of the Bible is. You end up with as many opinions as you have people. If there’s no higher authority to whom you can appeal your case, it just boils down to his/her opinion vs. mine.

    That’s why I asked Anon if that was Church teaching. If it’s not, then it’s not of concern to me — I’ve heard tons of crazy interpretations of the Bible in my life. This would be just one more.

    Read Steve G.’s comment to this post for a much, much better explanation.

    Posting this while cooking dinner, sorry if it’s not clear. 🙂

  14. Jennifer F.

    Just wanted to amend my last comment to say I hope I didn’t seem brusque or flippant. I just had soup boiling over on the stove and a toddler pulling papers out of my desk drawer so I was distracted and rushed. 🙂 Also, I should clarify that when I said that opinions about the bible outside of official Church teaching are not of concern to me, I should emphasize the to me part of that. My attempt there was not to knock Christians who see it differently, but since I’m using this conversation with Anon to explore my own faith that’s the info that’s important to me.

  15. SteveK

    Fair enough Jennifer. I didn’t intend to start a long discussion on this anyway. It’s been discussed for centuries and I’m just playing catch-up with my questions.

    BTW, I’ve got 4 kids so I know what it’s like to have your hands full.

  16. Bender

    Don’t know how consistent this is, exactly, with Catholic teaching, but something to think about anyway for those who think that they could have done a better job than God. (How far back is he going to go to comment on stuff?? This post is, like, two years old!)

    Futurama — Godfellas

    BENDER: Y’know, I was God once.
    GOD: Yes I saw. You were doing well until everyone died.
    BENDER: It was awful. I tried helping them. I tried not helping them but in the end I couldn’t do them any good. Do you think what I did was wrong?
    GOD: Right and wrong are just words. What matters is what you do.
    BENDER: Yeah I know, that’s why I asked if what I did . . . forget it.
    GOD: Bender, being God isn’t easy, if you do too much, people get dependent. And if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch, like a safecracker or a pickpocket.
    BENDER: Or a guy who burns down the bar for the insurance money.
    GOD: Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing. When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.
    * * *
    [He straps a parachute to Bender and throws him towards Earth. Bender screams.]
    [Cut to: Himalayas. Fry and Leela make their way down the mountain. Bender screams and falls through the atmosphere. Fry gasps.]
    * * *
    BENDER: Guys, you’ll never believe what happened. First I was God then I met God!
    FRY: We climbed a mountain and locked up some monks.
    LEELA: Oh no the monks. We forgot to let them out of the laundry room.
    FRY: Do we have to? I mean they’re monks. I’m sure their God will let them out or at least give them more shoes to eat.
    BENDER: Fat chance. You can’t count on God for jack. He pretty much told me so himself. Now come on. If we don’t save those monks no one will!
    [Pullback: In another pullback, this time lifted from Men In Black, God chuckles to Himself.]
    GOD: When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.
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