20 Questions From An Atheist To Christians

Christians often accuse atheists of holding their worldview because they want to sin, or because they hate God, or perhaps because they had traumatic experiences in the church.  I don’t find any of these to be the case with atheists I talk to…in fact, many of the atheists I know are quite well-behaved people with tremendous moral character.  I rejected Christianity because I couldn’t ignore some of the logical inconsistencies that came along with it.

I consider myself a skeptic, and I think that logical honesty includes re-evaluating one’s worldview from time to time, and being willing to throw away ideas that are not good.  I’m open to better ideas when I see them, and I’d be very interested in reading responses a Christian might have to some of these questions, because these questions were part of the reason I became an atheist in the first place.

  1. The gospel of Mark is widely accepted to be the first of the gospels, written 30 to 35 years after Jesus Christ died.  Matthew and Luke were written 10-15 years later.  John was written last, as much as 70 years after Jesus Christ died.  Through each gospel, there is new information being added.  For instance, Mark (and earlier writings by Paul) never mention Jesus Christ being born of a virgin, or being born in Bethlehem.  John is the first gospel to state that Jesus called himself god, pre-existing, and divine (John 8:58, John 14:9, John 17:5).

Do you think the additions to Jesus’ life in Matthew, Luke, and John were accidental omissions by Paul and Mark?

  1. During the time Paul was traveling around the Mediterranean, Jesus’ brother James lead congregations in Jerusalem until his death around 65 AD.  During the war in 70, Christians were pushed out of Jerusalem, to the countryside.   James eventually appointed Saint Simeon of Jerusalem a bishop of his church, and Simeon eventually came to lead the Ebionites, who among other things, did not believe Jesus Christ was divine, or was born of a virgin.

Why do you think people with such a direct link to Jesus’ brother have such an inconsistent worldview as mainline Christians?

  1. Biblical literalists claim the earth is around 6000 years old, based on timelines provided in the Old Testament.  The historical, fossil, radiometric, and genetic evidence seem to indicate a remarkably older earth than that, and dating the age of humans to be upwards of 200,000 years old.  Other predecessor species, such as Homo Heidelbergensis, Homo Ergaster, Homo Erectus, and Homo Habilis go back upwards of 2.5 million years.

If you agree with these scientific tenets, and that humans’ predecessors probably went without religion for millions of years, how could original sin exist?

  1. In Christianity, it’s said that God sent his son, Jesus Christ, to die for humanity’s sins.

If God had the capacity to create an infinite universe, with amazing precision contained within infinitesimally small cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks, doesn’t it seem a little strange that he would concern himself with such a primitive practice as human sacrifice?

  1. It’s often said that “God is love”; in other words, God is all-loving.  Judaism was practiced for several thousand years before Jesus Christ lived, yet Judaism does not have any well-developed ideas about heaven or hell.  Yet in Christianity, hell is introduced as an eternal torture device, where one might get sent for transgressions such as violating the Sabbath, or coveting too much.

Do you see these temporary human transgressions as deserving of trillions of years of torture?

  1. Many Christians state that people choose hell via their actions.  If a gunman walks up to a person, holds out a gun, and demands someone’s money, we don’t hold the gunman innocent if he shoots the victim who refuses.  Our justice system does not consider this ultimatum to be a meaningful option for the victim.

Why is god less guilty than the gunman if he sends people to burn forever?

  1. The New Testament gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death, most of them after any character described in the stories were also dead.  They also were not written in the same language as what the characters of the bible spoke (they spoke Aramaic, but the gospels were written in Greek).  In fact, most (if not all) of Jesus’ apostles were from lower class families, and were illiterate, so most lacked the means to write down their stories of Jesus.  It’s estimated that 90-97% of people in the area were illiterate at the time.

Do you have any concerns of the anecdotes about Jesus being embellished between the time of his death (around 35AD) and the time the final gospel was written, around 100AD?

  1. There is a great deal of inconsistency in the gospels.  For instance, Mark omits the virgin birth in Bethlehem.  Another example is between Matthew and Luke, where Matthew claims Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, where Luke claims Jesus was born while Quirinius was governor of Syria, conducting the census; yet Herod died in 4BC, and the census took place 20 years later.

Do disagreements like these give you any cause for concern about the inerrancy of the gospels?

  1. King David was said to rule Judah approximately 1000 years before Jesus was born.  Very little archeological evidence exists for a historically important King David, and some scholars believe King David never existed at all; however, the relationship between Jesus Christ and King David was extremely important for early Christians, as this relationship was indicative of a prophesy fulfilled.  Jesus is said to be related to King David on his father, Joseph’s side.

If Jesus was conceived from a virgin, who became pregnant because of God, how could he have a blood relationship to King David?

  1. It’s often said by Christians (and other practitioners of Abrahamic faiths) that God allows for free will.  Yet, it seems likely that if a being is all-knowing, then they not only know what everyone thinks, but they also know what everyone will do.  For example, if God is all-knowing, that would imply that from the moment he created the universe, he knew that in late July, 2015, I would be writing these questions.  This would imply that in God’s world, everything is predetermined.  People such as John Calvin believed there was indeed an implication of predeterminism, which is why one of the tenets of Calvinism states that entry into heaven is pre-determined, as well.  This notion gave rise to the “Protestant Work Ethic”, where practitioners wanted to appear successful, so as to not give indications they might be one of those predetermined not to enter heaven.

How could an all-knowing God allow for free will in this context, when it would seem that everything that happens is pre-determined?  Wouldn’t that imply that everything bad that’s ever happened was indeed planned by God?

  1. There were many examples in the Old Testament where God intervened, often to cause or assist in the death of a great many people.

Why do you suppose it is that these sorts of interventions don’t happen anymore?  Is it more likely that God changed, or that humans’ interpretations of a Godly intervention changed?

  1. The earliest writings of Christianity were by Paul.  In 1 Corinthians 11:23, Paul writes that he was told by the lord about Jesus’ last supper.  It seems fairly clear that Paul never met Jesus while Jesus was alive, and if he had, he would certainly not have been on good terms with Jesus; yet, Paul has a tremendous amount of intimate knowledge about the details of the supper, despite not receiving this information from anyone in attendance.

Do you have any concerns that Paul might have invented the story?

  1. Early conversions from Judaism to Christianity were difficult, partly because of the concern about violating the first commandment, but partly because of a violation of Leviticus 17, which said consuming blood was prohibited.  Jesus was born and raised a Jew.

Given that the first historical presentation of Jesus presenting bread and wine as “body and blood”, does this give you any suspicions about the likelihood that Jesus Christ actually spoke those words?

14.  Many atheists objections to the 10 commandments centers around the notion that coveting something is quite a natural, and often involuntary reaction that might have provided a great deal of benefit during human evolution over the course of millions of years.  Christopher Hitchens famously referred to this as “thought crime”.

Do you think a person deserves punishment if they failed to suppress their covetous thoughts?

  1. The 1st commandment states “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”.

Doesn’t it seem strange that a god, capable of creating infinity, would be so demanding of people in a tiny corner of the universe, to worship him?  Doesn’t that seem like a uniquely human characteristic, to be so demanding of constant praise and reverence?

  1. Do you think it’s more moral that a person would behave in a certain way out of concern for reward or punishment, as would be the case for a person practicing Christianity out of concern for entry into heaven, or out of concern for condemnation in hell?
  1. In Christianity, there is a heaven, where people go after they die.  This seems to give the notion that life is eternal, which might be comforting to people when they consider death, especially when they are nearing death.  Obviously, an atheist who has considered the logical implications of rejection of Christianity, wouldn’t believe this.

Do you think part of the reason so many people hang on to their faith, and why religion has lasted as long as it has, is because part of being human is to fear death?

18.  On any given day, nearly 10,000 children under the age of 5 die from malnutrition-related disease.  These children spent their whole lives suffering, and the conclusion to their suffering was death.

Does it seem strange that the underlying suffering described in the bible merited God’s intervention, yet this daily natural massacre of children does not merit intervention?

19.  First and Second Timothy, as well as Titus, are attributed to Paul in the New Testament; yet there is wide agreement that these texts were not written by Paul.  In fact, of the 13 books in the New Testament attributed to Paul, maybe only 7 of them actually were.

Do authorship questions give you any concern about the reliability of the content of the New Testament?

20.  There is a problem when someone says “Prove [something] doesn’t exist.”  This is particularly problematic when this line is used in conjunction with a claim they are making, because of a philosophical concept called falsifiability.  For instance, prove bigfoot does not exist.  Prove Loch Ness monster does not exist.  Prove invisible dragons don’t exist.

It’s very difficult to disprove these things, despite our confidence that [at least some of] these do not exist.

However, for any of these claims, if compelling evidence were put forward for their existence, they could be proved right away, and the question would be put away forever (in other words, we know gorillas exist, so we don’t go around pondering whether they do or not).

Do you think there is enough evidence for god’s existence (particularly the God described in the Old and New Testament, Yahweh) such that the claim could be framed in these terms?  In other words, does God’s existence follow the pattern of unfalsifiability?

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

11 thoughts on “20 Questions From An Atheist To Christians”

  1. Good questions but Christians aren’t interested in questions that challenge their faith. They don’t go around pounding their chests and shouting “My faith strong, challenge me!” In actuality they don’t even read their own literature. This is especially odd given that a pillar of Protestantism is the lack of need for a priest to interpret scripture for them. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the only thing people knew of the Bible is what priests told them was in their as their Bible was in Latin, and most people didn’t understand Latin; the priest “translated” into the vernacular for his “flock.”

    Honestly, if they truly believed in that claptrap, you’ think they’s nbe glued to their Bibles, but no, they aren’t so what are they committed to? They are committed to a fantasy religion that they call Christianity, but were they to be debriefed by anyone knowledgeable, they would be woefully ignorant of what Christianity is. So, a la Lewis Carroll, their Christianity means what they want it to mean, nothing more, nothing less. So, the fact that scripture condones and even endorses polygamy and slavery doesn’t matter because they are against it and are sure that their scripture will back them up.

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  2. Hey Tim (and Steve if he’s following the comments). I look forward to answering your 20 questions to the best of my abilities. While you’ve probably heard my answers a thousand times already, I’m more interested in listening to your responses to my comments and further discussion. I’ll plan on posting my answers here and on my blog.

    Thank you for your thought provoking questions.

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  3. 1. Do you think the additions to Jesus’ life in Matthew, Luke, and John were accidental omissions by Paul and Mark?

    No.

    2. Why do you think people with such a direct link to Jesus’ brother have such an inconsistent worldview as mainline Christians?

    A) The “link” is not that direct; B) Revelation continues to unfold; C) Heresies and schisms are still popping up but that doesn’t change the tradition in itself and the sources are often surprising.

    3. If you agree with these scientific tenets, and that humans’ predecessors probably went without religion for millions of years, how could original sin exist?

    A) Biblical literalists are “devoid of sense” (Origen); B) Original Sin is tied to behaviourally, not merely anatomically, modern humans and (biblically speaking) appears to immediately precede or coincide with the emergence of late Neolithic animal husbandry and the early Uruk period … putting the Cain and Abel account at just around 6000+ years ago…

    4. If God had the capacity to create an infinite universe, with amazing precision contained within infinitesimally small cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks, doesn’t it seem a little strange that he would concern himself with such a primitive practice as human sacrifice?

    Yes.

    5. Do you see these temporary human transgressions as deserving of trillions of years of torture?

    No. Neither do I believe that that is their result

    6. Why is god less guilty than the gunman if he sends people to burn forever?

    He doesn’t.

    7. Do you have any concerns of the anecdotes about Jesus being embellished between the time of his death (around 35AD) and the time the final gospel was written, around 100AD?

    No, this does not concern me.

    8. Do disagreements like these give you any cause for concern about the inerrancy of the gospels?

    If “inerrancy” is defined in terms of fixed-interpretation literalism, then yes.

    9. If Jesus was conceived from a virgin, who became pregnant because of God, how could he have a blood relationship to King David?

    Patrilinear bloodlines and being “of the house of” are two different issues.

    10. How could an all-knowing God allow for free will in this context, when it would seem that everything that happens is pre-determined?  Wouldn’t that imply that everything bad that’s ever happened was indeed planned by God?

    Atemporality. Cf. St. Augustine

    11. Why do you suppose it is that these sorts of interventions don’t happen anymore?  Is it more likely that God changed, or that humans’ interpretations of a Godly intervention changed?

    A) Interpretation is an issue; B) The incarnation was/is an intervention beyond all interventions.

    12. Do you have any concerns that Paul might have invented the story?

    No, this does not concern me.

    13. Given that the first historical presentation of Jesus presenting bread and wine as “body and blood”, does this give you any suspicions about the likelihood that Jesus Christ actually spoke those words?

    Considering the reported response to this statement, no.

    14.  Do you think a person deserves punishment if they failed to suppress their covetous thoughts?

    No.

    15. Doesn’t it seem strange that a god, capable of creating infinity, would be so demanding of people in a tiny corner of the universe, to worship him?  

    Where is that demand?

    15′. Doesn’t that seem like a uniquely human characteristic, to be so demanding of constant praise and reverence?

    Yes, which is probably why it’s an anthropomorphized interpretation and not the text itself.

    16. Do you think it’s more moral that a person would behave in a certain way out of concern for reward or punishment?

    No. Neither is this Christian morality.

    17. In Christianity, there is a heaven, where people go after they die.

    This is not necessarily the case.

    17′. Do you think part of the reason so many people hang on to their faith, and why religion has lasted as long as it has, is because part of being human is to fear death?

    Yes. I also believe that the number of people doing something for stupid reasons doesn’t determine the inherent value of the thing itself.

    18. Does it seem strange that the underlying suffering described in the bible merited God’s intervention, yet this daily natural massacre of children does not merit intervention?

    See answer 11.

    19. Do authorship questions give you any concern about the reliability of the content of the New Testament?

    No. My tradition is not Sola Scriptura, so this doesn’t concern me.

    20.  Do you think there is enough evidence for god’s existence (particularly the God described in the Old and New Testament, Yahweh) such that the claim could be framed in these terms?  In other words, does God’s existence follow the pattern of unfalsifiability?

    In The Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel De Unamuno suggests an experiment of falsifiability on this question. I leave the answer as a recommendation to take up that book.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply – I really appreciate it.

      I think the perspective you’re coming from is a very reasonable one…growing up, I was brought up in an ELCA Lutheran household, which is a fairly moderate denomination, as Christianity goes, so a lot of the nonsense in the old testament was glossed over, and usually ignored. I suspect a pretty big chunk of Christians in America are fairly moderate…although I’m not encouraged when I see polls asking people how old the earth is – something like 40% of Americans believe it’s <10k years old.

      The dissonance I encountered, especially after I started reading the bible, came with the question – what is true? How do I look at a statement in the bible and determine whether or not it's something I should internalize, whether it's metaphorical, or whether it's complete rubbish. Is it really an honest thing for me to make the bible more shielded from criticism than literally every other book or idea I encounter in my life?

      I got to feel that this process was an exercise in cherry-picking, and the best I could do is evaluate claims based on the evidence, along with some logical considerations…ultimately, it became harder and harder for me to presuppose supernaturalism, and even if I could give some likelihood to the universe's creation having a supernatural origin (or even that it's being run by Spinoza's god), how does that honestly get me to Christianity (or really any Abrahamic faith, monotheism, or polytheism)?

      I'll respond to a couple of your responses

      "5. Do you see these temporary human transgressions as deserving of trillions of years of torture? No. Neither do I believe that that is their result"
      Then why have hell? The gospels seem to paint a picture of hell, and Revelations 14:10 – "The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever."

      "9. If Jesus was conceived from a virgin, who became pregnant because of God, how could he have a blood relationship to King David?Patrilinear bloodlines and being “of the house of” are two different issues."
      Is the link described between JC and King David in Matthew and Luke an important characteristic of Christianity in your mind?

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      1. That 40% of Americans are rampaging idiots is actually good news from my perspective… I’d have thought the number was higher… then again, we don’t know how many didn’t understand the question.
        As far as having problems with the rejection of hermeneutic tradition that accompanied the whole of the Reformation, you’ll get no apologetics from me. There’s a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater if ever there was one. We expect to have build on our forebears in physics, what kind of schmuck would think metaphysics would be easier? (The same kind that speaks German and suffers from constipation and IBS, apparently.)
        As to your other questions:
        Why have hell?
        There’s a few sides to this. To begin with the philosophical: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’” (CCC 1033). Beyond this, within the strict bounds of the capacities of human knowledge and language, I side with the early Augustine (and others) in the view that we can’t speak of hell in any non-trivially literal sense. [I find this conclusion entailed by our inability to speak of or even imagine hell’s opposite; if we can’t express what it is to be in resurrected, transfigured, perpetual communion with God, then neither can we express the inverse (or converse?) thereof. (Damien Hirst actually captures the problem succinctly in the title of his piece, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”.)]
        Pastorally and hermeneutically, on the other hand–well, as previously noted, at least 40% of people are idiots (or, more charitably, exceedingly childish and intellectually lazy). Since the subtleties of the concepts sketched briefly above would be completely lost on them, a simplified version is necessary to convey the gravity and responsibility attached to existential freedom [side note: I think Dostoevsky gives a disturbingly accurate (if not exhaustive) portrayal of the differences and difficulties between informed/theological/doctrinal Christianity and popular/pastoral functions in “The Grand Inquisitor” from Brs. K]. The point is, most people suck at abstract thought–they want comparatives and examples. So, insofar as “hell” is necessarily, by definition, the worst [no]thing ever forever, you end up with “Confutatis maledictis, Flammis acribus addictis.” Which makes for a much lovelier requiem than Aquinas, but does tend to bungle the understanding.
        The problem, I feel, is that many (far, far too many) people get about as far as a 7th grade (at best) education in their faith and then expect that to do the work of sustaining the rest of their lives. And, granted, that was pretty much the case when we stopped at (or before) 7th grade for everything else too but today… Well, today, what would you call someone who expected h/er/is elementary school understanding of evolution to be valid and useful in adult life? –the term “rampaging idiot” comes to mind for some reason.
        Importance of Davidic heritage
        Upon reflection, it seems I don’t find it important enough to have warranted much of my attention thus far so, based on my own activity, it seems the answer to your question here is “No.”
        That said, I’m not committed to that position–I neither can nor would ‘defend’ it–I’m just admitting a point of ignorance on my part. I know it’s there, I know there is value attached to it, and I’m vaguely familiar with some of the arguments surrounding it but, frankly, I’ve had (and have) much bigger fish to fry when it comes to Scripture. [Next up on my list for in-depth inquiry: the cursing of the fig tree out of season (Mk. 11), but that’s more a personal issue than a ‘central to the faith’ thing.]

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    2. In your last comment, you mentioned the fig tree in Mark…while doing some unrelated analysis, I stumbled upon a historian’s (RG Hamerton Kelly) take on the matter.

      The cursing of the fig tree was an allegory for god’s abandonment of the temple – Mark was written after (almost immediately after) the Romans destroyed the temple; the temple destruction was an existential problem for Jews – personal salvation required that the temple exist. The struggle they had was with why would God allow these foreign barbarians to destroy the temple.

      The story of the fig tree was an allegory for God decided the temple wasn’t bearing fruit anymore

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      1. Yeah, I’d seen something similar before (maybe the same thing) but it never sat right with me… I’ll have to look again. (So many projects, so little time.)

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  4. Some of my responses got a little long so I’ll link you to my post instead of pasting it all here: http://simplifiedtheology.com/2015/07/21/20-responses-from-a-christian/

    In an interesting side note, I grew up LCMS and have a similar background with Church as you experience. As far as the polls, it would really be interesting to see the sample group that actually participated in the poll and their educational background. As that could certainly skew some of the results.

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